Living in Poverty

Long-term unemployment and a depressed economy drove the number of Americans living in poverty up in a majority of states in 2009.  Poverty levels continue to vary significantly across regions, states and age groups.


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2009 Census Bureau Poverty Guidelines:

  • An income of $10,830 a year or less = poverty for one person
  • An income of $22,050 a year or less = poverty for a family of four.

Long-term unemployment and a depressed economy drove poverty levels up in 2009.1

  • Poverty levels increased substantially last year as 3.5 million more Americans joined the ranks of those earning incomes below the federal poverty level.
  • In 2009, an estimated 42.9 million people were living below the poverty level representing 14.3 percent of the U.S. population. This is up from an estimated 39.4 million Americans, or 13.3 percent of the population, in 2008.
  • Many state and federal assistance programs use another statistic—the percentage of the population earning incomes that are at or below 200 percent of the poverty guideline, or around $21,660 for an individual and $44,000 for a family of four—to determine the level of need in a state. Thirty-three percent of Americans earned 200 percent of the poverty level in 2009, up from 31.9 percent in 2008.
  • The percentage of the population living in extreme poverty, or 50 percent of the poverty level, jumped from 5.6 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent in 2009.
  • The average annual unemployment rate for the U.S. in 2009 was 9.3 percent and it’s rising. In October 2010, the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Poverty levels vary significantly across states and age groups.

  • The percentage of people living in poverty in 31 states increased from 2008 to 2009, while no state experienced a decline in poverty levels.
  • New Hampshire (8.5 percent), Alaska (9 percent), Maryland (9.1 percent), Connecticut and New Jersey (both at 9.4 percent) had the lowest levels of poverty in 2009. Mississippi (21.9 percent), Arkansas (18.8 percent), Kentucky (18.6 percent), New Mexico (18 percent) and West Virginia (17.7 percent) had the highest levels of poverty.
  • The South had the highest average population percentage in poverty at 16.8 percent, while the East had the lowest average at 10.9 percent.
  • Children continue to be the most impoverished segment of the population, with an estimated 20 percent of the population under age 18 living in poverty. Child poverty rates range from 10.8 percent in New Hampshire to nearly one-third—31 percent— in Mississippi.
  • Those age 65 and older fared better than the general population, with 9.5 percent of the U.S. population in this age group under the poverty level.
  • An additional 3.3 million Americans would have fallen below the poverty line in 2009 if it weren’t for unemployment insurance benefits, including temporary expansions in those benefits included in the economic recovery legislation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


1 U.S. Census Bureau. “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009.” Issued September 2010.

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