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Poverty in the US

This guide provides information about poverty and the working class in America.


Poverty is a phenomenon as old as human history, its significance has changed over time. Under traditional (i.e., nonindustrialized) modes of economic production, widespread poverty had been accepted as inevitable. The total output of goods and services, even if equally distributed, would still have been insufficient to give the entire population a comfortable standard of living by prevailing standards. With the economic productivity that resulted from industrialization, however, this ceased to be the case—especially in the world’s most industrialized countries, where national outputs were sufficient to raise the entire population to a comfortable level if the necessary redistribution could be arranged without adversely affecting output.

Cyclical poverty refers to poverty that may be widespread throughout a population, but the occurrence itself is of limited duration.

Collective poverty involves a relatively permanent insufficiency of means to secure basic needs—a condition that may be so general as to describe the average level of life in a society or that may be concentrated in relatively large groups in an otherwise prosperous society. Both generalized and concentrated collective poverty may be transmitted from generation to generation, parents passing their poverty on to their children.

Case poverty refers to the inability of an individual or family to secure basic needs even in social surroundings of general prosperity. This inability is generally related to the lack of some basic attribute that would permit the individual to maintain himself or herself. Such persons may, for example, be blind, physically or emotionally disabled, or chronically ill. Physical and mental handicaps are usually regarded sympathetically, as being beyond the control of the people who suffer from them. Efforts to ameliorate poverty due to physical causes focus on education, sheltered employment, and, if needed, economic maintenance.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica

  • Absolute poverty is the complete lack of the means necessary to meet basic personal needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. The threshold at which absolute poverty is defined is always about the same, independent of the person's permanent location or era.
  • Relative poverty occurs when a person cannot meet a minimum level of living standards, compared to others in the same time and place. Therefore, the threshold at which relative poverty is defined varies from one country to another, or from one society to another. For example, a person who cannot afford housing better than a small tent in an open field would be said to live in relative poverty if almost everyone else in that area lives in modern brick homes, but not if everyone else also lives in small tents in open fields (for example, in a nomadic tribe). Secondary poverty refers to those that earn enough income to not be impoverished, but who spend their income on unnecessary pleasures, such as alcoholic beverages, thus placing them below it in practice.


Jeans pocket, no money.

Image Credit: Pixabay


  • Median household income was $67,521 in 2020, a decrease of 2.9 percent from the 2019 median of $69,560 (Figure 1 and Table A-1). This is the first statistically significant decline in median household income since 2011.
  • The 2020 real median incomes of family households and nonfamily households decreased 3.2 percent and 3.1 percent from their respective 2019 estimates (Figure 1 and Table A-1).
  • The 2020 real median household incomes of non-Hispanic Whites, Asians, and Hispanics decreased from their 2019 medians, while the changes for Black households was not statistically different (Figure 1 and Table A-1). 
  • In 2020, real median household incomes decreased 3.2 percent in the Midwest and 2.3 percent in the South and the West from their 2019 medians. The change for the Northeast was not statistically significant (Figure 1 and Table A-1). 


  • The real median earnings of all workers aged 15 and over with earnings decreased 1.2 percent between 2019 and 2020 from $42,065 to $41,535 (Figure 4 and Table A-6).
  • The total number of those who worked full-time, year-round declined 13.7 million between 2019 and 2020. The number of female full-time, year-round workers decreased by about 6.2 million, while the decrease for their male counterparts was approximately 7.5 million (Figure 6 and Table A-7).
  • In 2020, real median earnings of those who worked full-time, year-round increased 6.9 percent from their 2019 estimate. Median earnings of men ($61,417) and women ($50,982) who worked full-time, year-round increased by 5.6 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively (Figure 4 and Table A-6).


  • The official poverty rate in 2020 was 11.4 percent, up 1.0 percentage point from 10.5 percent in 2019.  This is the first increase in poverty after five consecutive annual declines (Figure 8 and Table B-4).
  •  In 2020, there were 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019 (Figure 8 and Table B-1).
  • Between 2019 and 2020, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics. Among non-Hispanic Whites, 8.2 percent were in poverty in 2020, while Hispanics had a poverty rate of 17.0 percent. Among the major racial groups examined in this report, Blacks had the highest poverty rate (19.5 percent), but did not experience a significant change from 2019. The poverty rate for Asians (8.1 percent) in 2020 was not statistically different from 2019 (Figure 9 and Table B-1).
  • Poverty rates for people under the age of 18 increased from 14.4 percent in 2019 to 16.1 percent in 2020. Poverty rates also increased for people aged 18 to 64 from 9.4 percent in 2019 to 10.4 percent in 2020. The poverty rate for people aged 65 and older was 9.0 percent in 2020, not statistically different from 2019 (Figure 9 and Table B-1).
  • Between 2019 and 2020, poverty rates increased for married-couple families and families with a female householder. The poverty rate for married-couple families increased from 4.0 percent in 2019 to 4.7 percent in 2020. For families with a female householder, the poverty rate increased from 22.2 percent to 23.4 percent. The poverty rate for families with a male householder was 11.4 percent in 2020, not statistically different from 2019 (Figure 12 and Table B-2).

Income and Poverty in the United States 2020

Food Desert Definition

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food deserts are “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” The key word in that definition is access, which can be impaired or limited by several factors, such as income, location, time, and the ability to travel to a store.

The specific guidelines for what determines a food desert can vary. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that measurements and definitions of food deserts often take into account common factors.

●      Accessibility: How many healthy food sources there are in one area, or how far away the closest healthy food source may be

●      Individual barriers: A person’s own unique restrictions that may prevent them from accessing healthy food, such as not enough time in their schedule or lack of necessary funds to purchase food

●      Neighborhood indicators: Determining factors such as reliable and abundant public transportation, or if average neighborhood incomes are near or below the poverty line


The USDA provides a helpful atlas that can help visitors identify food deserts in the United States.

For example, in Ohio, there are clusters of what can be considered food deserts around major cities such as Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, as well as in smaller cities and communities across the state. Even with the abundance of stores and services in major cities, food deserts still may exist due to the lack of income by customers to purchase healthy food. Even in an urban environment where there are several high-end restaurants, there still may be fewer options available for individuals to purchase healthy and nutritious food.

This makes food deserts an issue that isn’t necessarily restricted to rural or low-population areas. In Los Angeles, the second-most populous city in the country, there is still an abundance of food deserts within the larger county area. Even though these deserts are surrounded by areas that are not deserts by USDA standards, individuals who reside there may not have the ability to get to areas where food is available.

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The federal poverty level is a measure of income used by the U.S. government to determine who is eligible for subsidies, programs, and benefits. 

The Department of Health and Human Services updates the poverty guidelines each January. It raises them to account for inflation.

The 2022 poverty guidelines are in effect as of January 12, 2022.
Federal Register Notice, January 12, 2022 - Full text.

Persons in family/household Poverty guideline
1 $13,590
2 $18,310
3 $23,030
4 $27,750
5 $32,470
6 $37,190
7 $41,910
8 $46,630
For families/households with more than 8 persons, add $4,720 for each additional person.

Who are the working poor in America? Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Highlights from the 2019 data:

  • The working-poor rate of people in the labor force for 27 weeks or more was 4.0 percent. This is the lowest rate in the history of the series, which began in 1986. (See chart 1.)

  • Full-time workers remained much less likely to be among the working poor than part-time workers. Among people in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, 2.7 percent of those usually employed full time were classified as working poor, compared with 9.8 percent of part-time workers. (See table 1.)

  • Women were more likely than men to be among the working poor (4.5 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively). In addition, Blacks or African Americans and Hispanics or Latinos continued to be much more likely than Whites and Asians to be among the working poor.2 (See table 2.)

  • The likelihood of being classified as working poor diminishes as workers attain higher levels of education. Among those with less than a high school diploma, 12.8 percent of those who were in the labor force for at least 27 weeks were classified as working poor, compared with 1.4 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree and higher. (See table 3.)

  • Individuals who were employed in service occupations remained more likely to be among the working poor than those employed in other major occupational groups. (See table 4.)

  • Among families with at least one member in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, those with children under 18 years old were nearly 5 times as likely as those without children to live in poverty. Families maintained by women were more than twice as likely as families maintained by men to be living below the poverty level. (See table 5.)

US Department of Labor Statistics

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General Resources 

Poverty USA

PovertyUSA is the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. An initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), PovertyUSA seeks to educate and promote understanding about poverty and its root causes.

United States Census Bureau

Find income and poverty facts and highlights in the United States from 2016. 

Nebraska Report on Poverty 2020

Help for those in need in Nebraska.

Agencies for Nebraska Residents

Can Help

CAN is part of a national network of nonprofits consisting of over 1,000 Community Action Agencies, all “dedicated to helping people help themselves and each other.” Central Nebraska Community Action

Department of Human Services

Explore Nebraska's primary state health agency. 

Federal Programs

Learn about major federal safety net programs in the United States. 



The documentary, "Growing Up Poor in America", follows three children and their families in the battleground state of Ohio as the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies their struggle to stay afloat.