University of Wisconsin–Madison

What Are Poverty Thresholds And Poverty Guidelines?

Poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines are dollar amounts set by the U.S. government to indicate the least amount of income a person or family needs to meet their basic needs. People whose income falls below the specified amount are considered poor.

Both poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines are based on the official poverty measure established by the U.S. Census Bureau. See “How Is Poverty Measured” to learn more about the official poverty measure as well as various other poverty measures.

Both the poverty thresholds and the poverty guidelines are the same for all mainland states, regardless of regional differences in the cost of living. Both are updated annually for price changes using the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U).

Poverty thresholds

The Census Bureau uses poverty thresholds as part of the official poverty measure to estimate the population’s income and poverty levels and related information. They release these statistics in an annual report for the year and over time. They also make the data—with information that could be used to identify individuals removed—available online for researchers.

The most recent report covers 2017 and was issued in September 2018 as Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017. It provides estimates of how many people are poor; the poverty rate, or percentage of people who are below the poverty threshold; and how poverty is distributed by age, race, ethnicity, region, and family type. The report also includes real median incomes and earnings, the level of income inequality, and poverty rates by sex.

In addition to the income and poverty report, the Census Bureau also releases information on poverty and related information for states, counties, and other geographic divisions in annual reports also based on poverty thresholds.

  • What are the current poverty thresholds?

    The Census Bureau’s website has the official poverty measure’s thresholds for the years since 1980. The table below shows the most recent values of the official poverty measure’s thresholds.

    U.S. Census Bureau Poverty Thresholds, 2018
    Size of Family Unit Poverty Threshold
    One person (unrelated individual)
        Under age 65 $13,064
        Age 65 or older 12,043
    Two people
        Householder under age 65 with no related children 16,815
        Householder age 65 or older with no related children 15,178
    Three people with no related children 19,642
    Three people with two related children 20,231
    Four people with no related children 25,900
    Four people with two related children 25,465
    Five people with no related children 31,234
    Five people with two related children 30,718
    Six people with no related children 35,925
    Six people with two related children 35,324
    Seven people with no related children 41,336
    Seven people with two related children 40,705
    Eight people with no related children 46,231
    Eight people with two related children 45,800
    Nine people or more with no related children 55,613
    Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Thresholds for 2017 by Size of Family and Number of Related Children Under 18 Years, released in September 2018.

Poverty guidelines

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sets the poverty guidelines. The guidelines are a simpler version of the thresholds set with the official poverty measure, mostly used by federal agencies to determine eligibility for public programs such as food assistance.

When using the poverty guidelines to determine eligibility, some programs use a percentage multiple of the guidelines, such as 125 percent, 150 percent, or 185 percent. The federal government urges potential participants to ask the appropriate managing agency for the most accurate guidelines.

Some examples of federal programs that use the poverty guidelines in determining eligibility include the following:

  • Department of Health and Human Services: Community Services Block Grant, Head Start, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance
  • Department of Agriculture: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamp Program), National School Lunch Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program
  • Department of Energy: Weatherization Assistance for Low-Income Persons
  • Department of Labor: Job Corps, National Farmworker Jobs Program, Workforce Investment Act Youth Activities

Major means-tested programs (programs for which eligibility is based on income level) that do not use the poverty guidelines in determining eligibility include Supplemental Security Income, and the Social Services Block Grant.

Some state and local governments use the federal poverty guidelines in some of their programs and activities, such as financial guidelines for child support enforcement and eligibility for cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Some private companies such as utilities and telephone companies have also adopted the guidelines in setting eligibility for their services to low-income persons.

  • What are the current poverty guidelines?

    Poverty guidelines for the years since 1982 and other historical information are available on the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation’s website. The 2019 values of the poverty guidelines are provided in the table below.

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines, 2019
      Annual Income
    Persons in Family/ Household 48 Contiguous States and District of Columbia Alaska Hawaii
    1 $12,490 $15,600 $14,380
    2 16,910 21,130 19,460
    3 21,330 26,660 24,540
    4 25,750 32,190 29,620
    5 30,170 37,720 34,700
    6 34,590 43,250 39,780
    7 39,010 48,780 44,860
    8 43,430 54,310 49,940
    >8 persons For families/ households with more than 8 persons, add $4,420 for each additional person. For families/ households with more than 8 persons, add $5,530 for each additional person. For families/ households with more than 8 persons, add $5,080 for each additional person.
    Source: Federal Register, Vol. 84, No. 22, February 1, 2019, pp. 1167–1168.
    Notes: Section 673(2) of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1981 (42 U.S.C. 9902(2)) requires the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to update the poverty guidelines at least annually, adjusting them on the basis of the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). As required by law, this update is accomplished by increasing the latest published Census Bureau poverty thresholds by the relevant percentage change in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). The guidelines in this 2019 notice reflect the 2.4 percent price increase between calendar years 2017 and 2018. After this inflation adjustment, the guidelines are rounded and adjusted to standardize the differences between family sizes. As in prior years, these 2019 guidelines are roughly equal to the poverty thresholds for the calendar year 2018 which the Census Bureau expects to publish in final form in September 2019.

Key differences between the poverty thresholds and the poverty guidelines

Poverty Thresholds Poverty Guidelines
How They Vary Detailed (48-cell) matrix of poverty thresholds varies by family size, number of children, and, for 1- & 2-person units, whether elderly. Weighted average thresholds vary by family size and, for 1- & 2-person units, whether elderly. There is no geographic variation; the same figures are used for all 50 states and D.C. Poverty guidelines vary by family size and geographic location. There are three sets of figures: for the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia; for Alaska; and for Hawaii. The guidelines for Alaska and Hawaii are higher to account for much higher costs of living in those states.
How Updated or Calculated The 48-cell matrix is updated each year from the 1978 threshold matrix using the CPI-U. The preliminary weighted average thresholds are updated from the previous year’s final weighted average thresholds using the CPI-U. The final weighted average thresholds are calculated from the current year’s 48-cell matrix using family weighting figures from the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty guidelines are updated from the latest published (final) weighted average poverty thresholds using the CPI-U. (Figures are rounded, and differences between adjacent-family-size figures are equalized.)
Issuing Agency Census Bureau Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Purpose/Use Statistical – calculating the number of people in poverty Administrative – determining financial eligibility for certain programs
Rounding Rounded to the nearest dollar Rounded to various multiples of $10 – may end only in zero
Timing of Annual Update The Census Bureau issues preliminary poverty thresholds in January, and final poverty thresholds in September of the year after the year for which poverty is measured. The poverty thresholds are adjusted to the price level of the year for which poverty is measured. For example, the poverty thresholds for calendar year 2012 were issued in 2013 (preliminary in January, final in September), were used to measure poverty for calendar year 2012, and reflect the price level of calendar year 2012. HHS issues poverty guidelines in late January of each year. Some programs make them effective on date of publication, others at a later date. For example, the 2013 poverty guidelines were issued in January 2013, calculated from the calendar year 2011 thresholds issued in September 2012, updated to reflect the price level of calendar year 2012. Therefore, the 2013 poverty guidelines are approximately equal to the poverty thresholds for 2012 (for most family sizes).
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Frequently Asked Questions Related to the Poverty Guidelines and Poverty.
Note: CPI-U = Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers.