Poverty in the United States


How Many People Are Poor in the United States?

In 2012, 15.0% of the US population was living below the poverty line. The percentage of the population that was poor in 2012 has remained fairly steady from the level in 2010 (15.1%), and in 2011 (15.0%), in contrast to the steadily increasing poverty rate from 2007-2010. With the exception of these increases in recent years, the poverty rate has remained fairly steady, following a downward trend between 1993 (15.1%) and 2000 (11.3%). While the 2012 poverty rate is far from the historical highs in the first years that poverty was measured (above 20% between 1959 and 1962), the number of people counted as poor in 2012 (46.5 million) is the highest on record.

How Do U.S. Poverty Rates Compare with Other Developed Countries?

Unlike the United States, most countries do not have an "official" poverty measure, making international comparisons difficult. In a recent study however, Timothy Smeeding constructed and compared poverty rates across a select group of developed countries using data collected between 1997 and 2000. He defined the poor as those with disposable income (adjusted for household size) less than 50% of the national median. By this measure, the U.S. poverty rate (17%) was the highest among the 11 countries included in the study. Four of the five countries with the highest poverty rates in this study were Anglophone countries. Similar studies that include Australia (another Anglophone country) have found its poverty rate to be just below that of the U.S.

How Do the States Stack Up?

The lowest state poverty rate in the country in the 2010 to 2012 span was in New Hampshire (7.4%). At the other extreme, the highest poverty rates were in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Arizona and Arkansas (between 18 and 21.2%). 



Children and Poverty

In 2012, as in most recent years, a higher percentage of children were living in poverty (21.8%) compared with either working-age adults (13.7%) or the elderly (9.1%). The poverty rate among children in 2012 decreased slightly from the level in 2010, following a general trend upward since 2000. Due to these increases, the child poverty rate is now back at a level last seen in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among the elderly, the poverty rate in 2012 was higher than the 2011 rate, by 0.4%. The poverty rate has remained steady for the working age population from 2010 to 2012 (13.7%).

Minorities and Poverty

Continuing longstanding patterns of racial and ethnic disadvantage, poverty in 2012 was higher among ethnic and racial minorities. Poverty rates were highest among blacks and Hispanics, with a little over one in four members of these groups counted as poor in 2010 (27.2% and 25.6%, respectively). Poverty was lowest among non-Hispanic whites (9.7%).