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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.



  • 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

The Shocking Reality of Food Deserts in America

Imagine for a moment living your entire life without being able to shop at a grocery store. You’re forced to go without fresh fruits or vegetables, and even have no access to the basic ingredients required for a healthy home-cooked meal. All of your meals would be resorting to fast food or processed junk food that you purchased at the corner store with SNAP (food stamp benefits). That dismal scenario is reality for the 11 million impoverished Americans living in food deserts.

Simply put, food deserts are areas without grocery stores. The USDA defines food deserts as parts of the country void of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This lack of access is only worsened by a lack of transportation. Most families in food deserts also live without a car. That means they rely on public transportation for their work commute and they typically walk to stores nearest their home for food.

Grocery stores, like many other businesses, study the demographics of an area before deciding where to open a store. Unfortunately, impoverished areas in America don’t meet the intended demographic criteria for grocery stores to invest in building a location there. As a result, residents of these neglected neighborhoods only have access to small community stores that typically specialize in selling alcohol and junk food.

Dave Green, 

Why Hunger?

For more on healthier food access, read these PCD articles:

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.

2019 Federal Poverty Guidelines Chart

HHS issues poverty guidelines for each household size. For example, the poverty level for a household of four is an annual income of $25,750. To get the poverty level for larger families, add $4,420 for each additional person in the household. For smaller families, subtract $4,420 per person. Guidelines for Alaska and Hawaii are higher since it's more expensive to live there. The chart below calculates it for you.

Number of People in Household 48 States & DC Alaska Hawaii
One $12,490 $15,600 $14,380
Two $16,910 $21,130 $19,460
Three $21,330 $26,660 $24,540
Four $25,750 $32,190 $29,620
Five $30,170 $37,720 $34,700
Six $34,590 $43,250 $39,780
Seven $39,010 $48,780 $44,860
Eight $43,430 $54,310 $49,940
For nine or more, add this amount for each additional person   $4,420 $5,530




Department of Health and Human Services 

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

The “working poor” are people who spend 27 weeks or more in a year in the labor force either working or looking for work but whose incomes fall below the poverty level. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 9.5 million of people who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force were poor. That year, the working poor comprised 6.3 percent of all individuals in the labor force.

The majority of the people who live below the poverty level do not work, but this includes children, the elderly and the disabled poor. Among the poor between ages 18 and 64 who are not disabled or in school in 2014, 51.8 percent worked for part of the previous year. However, only 25.2 percent of these “able-bodied” poor worked more than 50 weeks.

In 2014, the working poor as a fraction of all people in the labor force for 27 weeks or more were:

  • 11.7% Black, 11.7% Hispanic/Latino, 5.5% White, 4.3% Asian
  • 7.2% women, 5.5% men
  • 18.3% with less than a high school diploma
  • 8.3% high school graduates with no college education
  • 2% with a bachelor’s degree or higher

Are wages or jobs the problem for the working poor?

The connection between poverty and labor markets is complex. High, stable wages and stable full-time employment can keep many out of poverty. However, stagnation of wages at the bottom of the US wage distribution over the past several decades and continuing low rates of full-time work, especially in single-parent households, often leave families below the official poverty threshold.

In 2014, 82 percent of the working poor who usually worked full time experienced at least one of the major labor market problems, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Low earnings continued to be the most common problem, with 67 percent subject to low earnings, either as the major problem or in combination with other labor market problems.

Whether employment status reflects supply or demand factors remains a question. Poverty is substantially higher in states where wages at the bottom of the distribution are lowest. Poverty rates are nearly five percentage points higher in the lowest-wage states compared to states with wages in the middle.

Center for Poverty Research

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