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One Version of the [U.S.] Federal Poverty Measure

Latest Poverty Guidelines ]
Prior Poverty Guidelines and Federal Register References Since 1982 ]
[ Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) ]
[ Further Resources on Poverty Measurement, Poverty Lines, and Their History ]

There are two slightly different versions of the federal poverty measure:

The poverty thresholds are the original version of the federal poverty measure.  They are updated each year by the Census Bureau (although they were originally developed by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration).  The thresholds are used mainly for statistical purposes — for instance, preparing estimates of the number of Americans in poverty each year.  (In other words, all official poverty population figures are calculated using the poverty thresholds, not the guidelines.)  Poverty thresholds since 1973 (and for selected earlier years) and weighted average poverty thresholds since 1959 are available on the Census Bureau's Web site.  For an example of how the Census Bureau applies the thresholds to a family's income to determine its poverty status, see "How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty" on the Census Bureau's web site.

The poverty guidelines are the other version of the federal poverty measure. They are issued each year in the Federal Register by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The guidelines are a simplification of the poverty thresholds for administrative purposes — for instance, determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs. (The full text of the Federal Register notice with the 1996 guidelines is available here.)

The poverty guidelines are sometimes loosely referred to as the "federal poverty level" (FPL), but that phrase is ambiguous and should be avoided, especially in situations (e.g., legislative or administrative) where precision is important.

Key differences between poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines are outlined in a table under Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). See also the discussion of this topic on the Institute for Research on Poverty's web site.

NOTE: The poverty guideline figures below are NOT the figures the Census Bureau uses to calculate the number of poor persons.
The figures that the Census Bureau uses are the poverty thresholds.

1996 HHS Poverty Guidelines

  Size of      48 Contiguous
Family Unit   States and D.C.      Alaska      Hawaii

     1            $ 7,740         $ 9,660     $ 8,910

     2             10,360          12,940      11,920

     3             12,980          16,220      14,930

     4             15,600          19,500      17,940

     5             18,220          22,780      20,950

     6             20,840          26,060      23,960

     7             23,460          29,340      26,970

     8             26,080          32,620      29,980

For each additional
person, add         2,620           3,280       3,010

SOURCE:  Federal Register, Vol. 61, No. 43, March 4, 1996,
         pp. 8286-8288.

The separate poverty guidelines for Alaska and Hawaii reflect Office of Economic Opportunity administrative practice beginning in the 1966-1970 period.  Note that the poverty thresholds — the original version of the poverty measure — have never had separate figures for Alaska and Hawaii.

The poverty guidelines apply to both aged and non-aged units.  The guidelines have never had an aged/non-aged distinction; only the Census Bureau (statistical) poverty thresholds have separate figures for aged and non-aged one-person and two-person units.

Programs using the guidelines (or percentage multiples of the guidelines — for instance, 130 percent of the guidelines) in determining eligibility include Head Start, the Food Stamp Program, the National School Lunch Program, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Note that in general, cash public assistance programs (Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Supplemental Security Income) do NOT use the poverty guidelines in determining eligibility.  The Earned Income Tax Credit program also does NOT use the poverty guidelines to determine eligibility.  For a more detailed list of programs that do and don’t use the guidelines, see the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).

The poverty guidelines (unlike the poverty thresholds) are designated by the year in which they are issued. For instance, the guidelines issued in March 1996 are designated the 1996 poverty guidelines. However, the 1996 HHS poverty guidelines only reflect price changes through calendar year 1995; accordingly, they are approximately equal to the Census Bureau poverty thresholds for calendar year 1995. (The 1995 thresholds should be issued in final form in September or October 1996; a preliminary version of the 1995 thresholds is available now from the Census Bureau.)

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

Go to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).

Return to the Poverty Guidelines, Research, and Measurement main page.

Last updated:  01/29/10