Poverty in America

The federal government measures poverty in the United States using 2 different calculation methodologies. The US Census Bureau reports on poverty based on the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) and Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). 

The OPM metric has been in place since 1963 and looks at pre-tax income against a threshold that is set at 3x the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 (in today’s prices), adjusted for family size. This metric measures income, threshold, and family to estimate what percentage of the US population lives under the umbrella of poverty.

The SPM metric, first introduced in 2011 was and is currently used to provide a more well-rounded view of poverty in the United States. As its name suggests, it is used in conjunction with the OPM, not as a replacement measure. SPM was designed to take contextual social, economic, and governmental factors into account that impact household incomes and cost of living. Elements of data such as geography, housing costs, the composition of family members, and more are part of the overall calculation.

Take a look at the below table to see the differences between OPM and SPM metrics:


The total number of people in the United States accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population. As a nation, we earn more than 20% of the total global income. As grand and promising as this may sound, 1 in 10 people in the United States lives in poverty. Here is what the latest data looks like for poverty in America (based 2022 US Census data as published by americanprogress.org).
OPM 2022.png
SPM 2022.png

A language/definition item to note: we talk a lot about low income in conjunction with poverty, and you may have also come across “extreme poverty” or “concentrated poverty”. Here’s how the breakdown of the definitions works (from aecf.org):


Fam­i­lies live in extreme pover­ty when their house­hold earn­ings amount to less than half of their assigned pover­ty thresh­old. Also writ­ten as ​“below 50% pover­ty” or half the poverty threshold.”


To meet their most basic needs, fam­i­lies need to earn about twice as much as the fed­er­al pover­ty thresh­old, accord­ing to research. Fam­i­lies with annu­al earn­ings below this lev­el are con­sid­ered low income. Also writ­ten as ​“below 200% pover­ty” or “double the poverty threshold.”


Areas of con­cen­trat­ed pover­ty — also called high-pover­ty areas — are cen­sus tracts where pover­ty rates for the local pop­u­la­tion hits 30% or higher.