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Measuring Poverty

Thu Sep 16 2010
David Johnson, Chief, Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division
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Open any newspaper or turn on any news broadcast and chances are good you’ll find a story touching on poverty in America. Each year the U.S. Census Bureau offers America a snapshot of poverty in our country.

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How many people live in poverty? In 2009, the number was 43.6 million (14.3 percent of our population).

The rate varies for different groups. For instance, it is 20.7 percent for children, but 8.9 percent for people 65 and older. It is 29.9 percent for families with a female householder and 5.8 percent for married-couple families. Additionally, it is 9.4 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 12.5 percent for Asians, 25.8 percent for blacks and 25.3 percent for Hispanics.

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We publish poverty data dating back to 1959, which is shortly before the official poverty measure was developed. The number of people in poverty in 2009 – 43.6 million – is the largest number ever recorded in this 51-year period. Partly this is because our population is much larger. The poverty rate in 2009 was the highest since 1994, but is 8 percentage points lower than it was in 1959.

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Policymakers and analysts rely heavily on these data as one of the primary measures of the health of our economy, as well as to gauge the effectiveness of government programs. Each year, we ask people in roughly 78,000 households about their income in the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to our Current Population Survey. If you are one of them, remember that your answer is very important. This information helps our nation address the many problems of poverty and find solutions.

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