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How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty

Following the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Statistical Policy Directive 14, the Census Bureau uses a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. If a family's total income is less than the family's threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty. The official poverty thresholds do not vary geographically, but they are updated for inflation using Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps).

For more information, see the How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty page under the Guidance for Data Users section of this site.

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Poverty Data Sources

The Census Bureau reports poverty data from several major household surveys and programs.

The Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) to the Current Population Survey (CPS) is the source of official national poverty estimates. The American Community Survey (ACS) provides single and multi-year estimates for smaller areas. The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) provides longitudinal estimates. The Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program provides model-based poverty estimates for school districts, counties, and states.

For more background on each survey or program, the differences between them, and how to choose the right data source, see the Guidance for Data Users section of this site.

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The History of the Poverty Measure

The current official poverty measure was developed in the mid 1960s by Mollie Orshansky, a staff economist at the Social Security Administration. Poverty thresholds were derived from the cost of a minimum food diet multiplied by three to account for other family expenses.

For more information, see the History of the Poverty Measure page within this About section.

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Recessions

Business cycle peaks and troughs used to delineate the beginning and end of recessions are determined by the National  Bureau of Economic Research, a private research organization.

For more information, see the Data Table below.

pdf   Recessions   [<1.0 MB]
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Contact Us

For assistance, please contact the Census Call Center at 1-800-923-8282 (toll free) or visit ask.census.gov for further information.

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