US Poverty at Record High

A record 46 million Americans are living in poverty.

A record 46 million Americans are living in poverty.

Reuters (“American poverty levels hit record high“):

A record 46 million Americans were living in poverty in 2010, pushing the US poverty rate to its highest level since 1993, according to a government report on the grim effects of stubbornly high unemployment.

Underscoring the economic challenges that face President Barack Obama and Congress, the US census bureau said the poverty rate rose for a third consecutive year to hit 15.1% in 2010. The number of people in poverty was the largest since the government first began publishing estimates, in 1959.


The US has the highest poverty rate among developed countries, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The poverty line for a US family of four, including two children, is an income of $22,113 (£14,062) a year.

The data showed that children under 18 suffered the highest poverty rate – 22% – compared with adults and the elderly.


The poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic whites, black people and Hispanics but did not differ significantly for Asians. Black people and Hispanics together accounted for 54% of the poor, with whites at 9.9% and Asians at 12.1%.

The south fared worst among US regions, recording the highest poverty rate, a significant drop in median income and the largest number of residents without health insurance.

Broken down by state, Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 22.7%, according to calculations by the census Bureau. It was followed by Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Georgia, New Mexico and Arizona. At the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 6.6%.

There is room to quibble here. This “record” is meaningless, since statistics were not kept during the Great Depression, much less the 1800s, when poverty was surely much more prevalent. And the poverty rate has been higher than it is now many times even during the post-1959 period; the record high is a reflection of a massively larger population base. Further, defining poverty based solely on income levels is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is variable cost of living in different localities. $22,000 is a lot more money in rural Mississippi than it is in the District of Columbia.

Still, the numbers are not good news. We’re richer than any country on the planet and yet have a larger percentage of poor than any developed country. And more than a quarter of American blacks (27.4 percent) and Hispanics (26.6 percent) are living in poverty.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    the record high is a reflection of a massively larger population base

    I thought they were talking about percent of the population.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael: No, the percentage was much higher from 1957 to 1965 and at a couple points since; this is just the highest percentage since 1993. The “record” is the sheer number of people under the poverty line.

  3. john personna says:

    I think you’ve taken a wrong attack on this, and I’m split between disputing your ameliorations and making the proper attack myself …

    The poverty thresholds were originally developed in 1963-1964 by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration. Orshansky took the dollar costs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economy food plan for families of three or more persons and multiplied the costs by a factor of three. She followed somewhat different procedures to calculate thresholds for one- and two-person units in order to allow for the relatively larger fixed costs that small family units face. (The economy food plan used by Orshansky is included in a 1962 Agriculture Department report.)

    Orshansky used a factor of three because the Agriculture Department’s 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey found that for families of three or more persons, the average dollar value of all food used during a week (both at home and away from home) accounted for about one third of their total money income after taxes.

    In May 1965, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity adopted Orshansky’s poverty thresholds as a working or quasi-official definition of poverty. In August 1969, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (predecessor of the Office of Management and Budget) designated the poverty thresholds with certain revisions as the federal government’s official statistical definition of poverty.

    So, on the one hand, as a definition of poverty, it’s pretty weak. It isn’t just wrong for some locales, it’s questionable in all.

    [sudden recognition here]

    I mean geeze louise, you complain that it’s harder to live some places than others …. but is there ANY place in the US where a family of four can live on $22k?

  4. john personna says:

    (The key, in case it was missed, was that “poverty level” dates from “food x 3”)

  5. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: In the rural South, yes, I think one could rent a crappy apartment or trailer, keep food on the table, and meet other basic necessities at $22,000 a year pretty easily. Not so much in metro areas.

  6. john personna says:

    Health insurance?

  7. john personna says:

    (Perhaps you are thinking you can live “in poverty” at $22K, and not that at $23K you rise above it. That’s what a “threshold” is supposed to mean.)

  8. Michael says:

    @john personna:

    Health insurance?

    Optional. Also, not having any is a good way to reduce the amount of people you need to feed. Didn’t you watch the debate?

  9. legion says:

    @James Joyner: It’s not just metro areas. There are lots of places in this country (rural south, SoCal, etc) where you can survive – albeit uncomfortably – with no AC. But there are also lots of places where, if you don’t have winter heat, you’re going to die.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I’ve lived pretty comfortably–2 bedrooms, cable, etc.–on $10k but that was 15 years ago and without a family to support. Health insurance is expensive–I didn’t have it, although I theoretically had VA as a backup. I don’t know the eligibility requirements for Medicaid; I knew plenty of graduate students with families who qualified.

  11. john personna says:

    @legion: @James Joyner:

    Right, but remember what this line, and the statistic about how many people are below it, is supposed to mean. That families making $22,114 and above, are not living in poverty.

  12. Hal (GT) says:

    Even our poor are often times in better situations then those during the 1800’s or Great Depression. But things are bad. In fact the numbers the gov put out I would say are under reported. My worry is that we are on the brink of getting to a point economically and socially like the Great Depression. I pray it doesn’t happen. But all ready here in my area we do have “tent cities”.

  13. john personna says:

    @Hal (GT):

    Well, this sure ties to the rise in food stamp use, and political reactions to the same.

  14. Matt says:

    I’d like to know how many of the people living in poverty have DirecTV or cable
    My guess is at least 50%

  15. Michael says:

    I’d like to know how many of the people living in poverty have DirecTV or cable
    My guess is at least 50%

    Because access to inexpensive entertainment is consider a luxury by some people.

  16. john personna says:

    Crooked Timber’s take is good, drawing in other data:

    Running out of excuses

    (Re. DirectTV, assuming a $29 deal, that’s $348/yr, or 1.6% of a $22K annual budget. Much less important, say, than a car or public transport decision.)