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Poverty in America

Poverty is a world-wide issue. There are citizens in every country that experience some level of poverty. When most people think of poverty, they think of a homeless person sleeping on the streets or children in Africa who are so malnourished you can count their ribs. Although these extreme forms of poverty are the easiest to recognize, they only account for a small portion of people living in poverty, especially in the United States. This week, we’ll review the current state of poverty in the United States.

But first, what is the poverty line?

The poverty line is how the government determines who is or isn’t living in poverty. How close someone is to these thresholds can determine what kind of government aid they receive, and helps non-profits like Community Action agencies determine who needs the most help. The 2020 poverty level was $26,200 for a family with two adults and two children. For a couple, the poverty level is $17,240. This means a family of four who’s annual income is $30,000 is living in poverty, while a couple making $20,000 annually would be considered at risk of living in poverty.

How many people live below the poverty line?

According to the Census Bureau, about one in every eight people in 2018 lives in poverty across the United States. That amounts to about 41.8 million individuals, or 13.1% of the population.

The southeast region has some of the poorest states in the US. Our eight state association ranked this way for families whose income was below the poverty line in 2019:

Where Do Poor People Live?

There are poor people in every county across the USA, however, there appears to be a larger concentration of poor people living in rural counties. Research done by Pew Trust showed that 14 of the 20 counties that saw the largest increase in poverty were Southern. And Brookings found that rural poverty rates were at 16.4% in 2017, which was almost 4% higher than urban areas which was 12.9%.

The Working Poor

The working poor are people who spend 27 weeks, or more working each year or are looking for work, but whose incomes fall below the poverty level. Low earnings continues to be the largest barrier between working poor and escaping poverty. “In fact, 2017 marked the 10th year that poverty has failed to fall below pre-recession levels,” an NC Policy Watch article reports. "More than 1 in 5 kids in North Carolina are growing up in families that can’t give them a good start to in life because they are paid wages too low to afford the basics.”

Why it Matters

Clearly, poverty is more than a financial crisis, and it impacts millions of Americans. A child who is raised in poverty often doesn’t know a different way of life, and so poverty can become a cycle that can’t be broken until external forces step in. Poverty tends to disproportionally affect vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the disabled and children. Many adults who lived well above poverty find themselves at risk or living below the poverty line once they retire or after a disability affects them. This is why organizations like Community Action provide much needed services to those affected. By providing simple resources like food assistance, senior services, Head Start, and weatherization, we help people in poverty increase their standard of living so that one day they can live well above the poverty line.

Want to Join our Fight Against Poverty?

  • Donate | We use your money to help run our programs, and provide training that helps organizations and individuals make their way to self-sufficiency. Find your state association here.

  • Follow Us | Follow us on Facebook or Twitter, and join our quarterly newsletter.

  • Partner with Us | We are humbled by the many non-profit and for-profit organizations that partner with us to bring services, education and events to to southeast region. If your organization is looking for a non-profit to partner with, please consider us. Email us at We would love to hear from you!

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