United States Department of Health & Human Services

Further Resources on Poverty Measurement, Poverty Lines,
and Their History

[ Poverty Guidelines, Research, and Measurement main page ]



This page includes resources on the two slightly different versions of the U.S. (federal) poverty measure:  the poverty thresholds and the poverty guidelines.

Key differences between the poverty thresholds and the poverty guidelines are outlined on our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page. See also the discussion of this topic on the Institute for Research on Poverty’s web site.

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Background Paper on the Poverty Guidelines

Gordon M. Fisher, “Poverty Guidelines for 1992,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 43-46

Besides presenting the guidelines for a particular year, this article is a background paper on the poverty guidelines. It describes the differences between the poverty guidelines and poverty thresholds, lists a number of federal programs that use the guidelines as an eligibility criterion, and shows how the guidelines are calculated from the thresholds each year.

Programs That Do — and Don’t — Use the Poverty Guidelines

Cash and Noncash Benefits for Persons with Limited Income:  Eligibility Rules, Recipient and Expenditure Data, FY2002-FY2004 (CRS Report for Congress — Order Code RL33340), Domestic Social Policy Division and Knowledge Services Group, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, March 27, 2006 (A printed copy of this report is available upon request from the office of your U.S. Senator or Representative. The report is also on the Open CRS website, a non-CRS website with a number of CRS reports, at http://wikileaks.org/leak/crs/RL33340.pdf exit disclaimer (PDF - 193 pages).

A number of means-tested programs use the poverty guidelines (or a percentage multiple of them) as an eligibility criterion. An even larger number of means-tested programs, however, do not use the poverty guidelines as an eligibility criterion, instead using non-poverty-guidelines-related income tests or other criteria. This 193-page report provides information on 84 means-tested programs — both programs using the poverty guidelines and programs not using the poverty guidelines. For each program covered, the report provides information on the program’s funding formula, eligibility requirements, and benefit levels. (A short list of selected programs using and not using the guidelines is available on our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page.)

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The Official Federal Statistical Definition of Poverty

Statistical Policy Directive No. 14, “Definition of Poverty for Statistical Purposes” (Federal Register, Vol. 43, No. 87, May 4, 1978, p. 19269)

In August 1969, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (the predecessor of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) designated the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds as the federal government’s official statistical definition of poverty. This directive is the latest version of the document embodying that designation.

Mollie Orshansky’s Development of the Poverty Thresholds

Gordon M. Fisher, “The Development and History of the Poverty Thresholds,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 3-14

This article describes how Mollie Orshansky developed the poverty thresholds during the 1960’s, and how the thresholds have and have not been changed since then. For a 2-page summary of this article, see “The Development and History of the U.S. Poverty Thresholds — A Brief Overview,” GSS/SSS Newsletter [Newsletter of the Government Statistics Section and the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association], Winter 1997, pp. 6-7. There is also an 88-page revision of the unpublished paper from which the Social Security Bulletin article was condensed.

Mollie Orshansky, “Counting the Poor:  Another Look at the Poverty Profile,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 1, January 1965, pp. 3-29 — reprinted in Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 51, No. 10, October 1988, pp. 25-51

This is the original article in which Orshansky presented the final version of her poverty thresholds. A list of selected articles and papers by Orshansky on the poverty thresholds and the poverty population is available, with a link to some of the articles (including “Counting the Poor …”). The economy food plan used by Orshansky to develop the thresholds is included in a 1962 Agriculture Department report [PDF format - 58 pages].

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Research on Alternative Approaches to Poverty Measurement

U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, The Measure of Poverty:  A Report to Congress as Mandated by The Education Amendments of 1974, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1976

This report thoroughly explored the issues involved in developing and revising poverty measures, gathering extensive supporting information that was presented in the report itself and in 17 Technical Papers. The report did not recommend specific changes in the current poverty measure. The report and the Technical Papers are now available on the Census Bureau’s Web site.

Constance F. Citro and Robert T. Michael (editors), Measuring Poverty:  A New Approach, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995

In May 1995, the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance appointed by the National Research Council’s Committee on National Statistics issued this report, which proposed a new approach for developing an official poverty measure for the U.S. — although it did not propose a specific set of dollar figures. For further information on this report, contact the Committee on National Statistics, HA 192, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418 — telephone:  (202) 334-3093; e-mail address:  cnstat@nas.edu; or you may visit the web page for the report. The full text of the report is on the Census Bureau’s Poverty Measurement Web site.

Papers by David Betson on Poverty Measurement Issues

David M. Betson of the Notre Dame University Department of Economics wrote the following papers while he was a visiting scholar at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, HHS.  (Dr. Betson was a member of the National Research Council's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance.) 

U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Measurement Working Papers

These working papers, written since 1995, deal with issues relating to poverty measurement and experimental poverty measures. Papers in this series are arranged under the following topics:  Measuring Poverty — Background and Overview; Who are the Poor? Using Different Measures; Poverty Thresholds; Medical Care; Housing Costs; Work-related Expenses and Child Care; Taxes and Unit of Analysis; and Other Approaches to Measuring Economic Well-being.

Kathleen Short, Thesia Garner, David Johnson, and Patricia Doyle, Experimental Poverty Measures:  1990 to 1997, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-205, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, June 1999. [PDF format - 133 pages]

This report is the first in a series of Census Bureau reports presenting variants of poverty measures based on the recommendations of the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance. This report also examines the marginal effects of varying individual elements (e.g., the equivalence scale) of the proposed poverty measures. More recent Census Bureau reports on experimental poverty measures are also available.

National Research Council, Experimental Poverty Measures:  Summary of a Workshop, Planning Group for the Workshop to Assess the Current Status of Actions Taken in Response to Measuring Poverty:  A New Approach, Committee on National Statistics, Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 2005

In June 2004, the National Research Council’s Committee on National Statistics convened a workshop to assess the current state of research on various elements of experimental poverty measures based on the recommendations of the 1995 Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance. This report summarizes the discussions at the workshop. Eight papers presented at the workshop are available on the Committee on National Statistics web site. See also John Iceland, “The CNSTAT workshop on experimental poverty measures, June 2004” in Focus, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring 2005, pp. 26-30, for a 5-page summary of the workshop. [PDF format - 5 pages]

Douglas J. Besharov and Peter Germanis, Reconsidering the Federal Poverty Measure, University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy, June 14, 2004.  [PDF format - 24 pages]

Beginning in 2004, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (ASPE) provided funding for a series of seminars to explore the limitations of the current federal poverty measure and to identify alternative approaches for measuring the material well-being of low-income Americans. Seminar participants included most of the senior government officials responsible for the relevant surveys, as well as academics broadly representative of different disciplines and political orientations. This paper provides a description of the seminar project. Working papers and summaries of individual seminars are available at http://www.welfareacademy.org/pubs/poverty/.

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Papers by ASPE Staff Relating to the History of Poverty Lines

Gordon M. Fisher, “From Hunter to Orshansky:  An Overview of (Unofficial) Poverty Lines in the United States from 1904 to 1965” (October 1993 — revised August 1997)

A 7-page summary of this 98-page paper is also available.

Gordon M. Fisher, Is There Such a Thing as an Absolute Poverty Line Over Time? Evidence from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia on the Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line” (October 1994 — revised August 1995)

Successive unofficial poverty lines developed as absolute poverty lines show a pattern of rising in real terms over time as the real income of the general population rises; this phenomenon has been termed “the income elasticity of the poverty line.” This 78-page paper assembles extensive historical evidence of this phenomenon not only from the U.S. but also from the three other countries named. A 9-page summary is also available. For a brief summary of the U.S. evidence alone, see “Relative or Absolute — New Light on the Behavior of Poverty Lines Over Time,” GSS/SSS Newsletter [Joint Newsletter of the Government Statistics Section and the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association], Summer 1996, pp. 10-12.

Gordon M. Fisher, “Reasons for Measuring Poverty in the United States in the Context of Public Policy — A Historical Review, 1916-1995” (August 1999 — revised June 2000)

Gordon M. Fisher, “How Many Americans Were Really in Poverty in 1947? Estimates of the U.S. Poverty Population Between 1947 and 1963 Under Two Contemporary (1949 and 1959) Definitions of Poverty” (a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association in Baltimore, Maryland), October 1999

Gordon M. Fisher, “Setting American Standards of Poverty:  A Look Back,” Focus [newsletter of the Institute for Research on Poverty], Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 47-52. [This issue of Focus is available in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF) on the Institute for Research on Poverty’s Web site, 64 pages.]

This article summarizes the development and history of the current official poverty measure and also the history of unofficial poverty lines in the U.S. before 1965.

Gordon M. Fisher, “Poverty Lines and Measures of Income Inadequacy in the United States Since 1870: Collecting and Using a Little-Known Body of Historical Material” (a paper presented at the 22nd Meeting of the Social Science History Association in Washington, D.C.), October 1997

NewGordon M. Fisher, “An Overview of Recent Work on Standard Budgets in the United States and Other Anglophone Countries”, January 2007.

Gordon M. Fisher, “'Enough for a Family to Live On?' — Questions from Members of the American Public and New Perspectives from British Social Scientists” (a paper presented at the 23rd Annual Research Conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in Washington, D.C.), November 2001.  [PDF format - 50 pages]

This paper reviews four approaches to determining a socially acceptable minimum standard of living (poverty) that are being used in Britain and other European countries.

Gordon M. Fisher, “Some Popular Beliefs About the U.S. Poverty Line as Reflected in Inquiries from the Public,” The Sociologist [Newsletter of the District of Columbia Sociological Society], Vol. 30, No. 2, October 1996, p. 6

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For Further Questions

If you have further questions about poverty guidelines, poverty thresholds, or poverty lines that are not answered by the material on this page or by our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), you may contact:

Gordon Fisher
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
Room 404E, Humphrey Building
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201
Phone:  (202) 690-7507
E-mail:  gordon.fisher @ hhs.gov

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Last Revised:  June 15, 2009

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