Reading: Poverty and Economic Inequality

This image shows hundreds of protestors during Occupy Wall Street.

Figure 14.1. Occupying Wall Street. On September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street began in New York City’s Wall Street financial district. (Credit: modification of work by David Shankbone/Flickr Creative Commons)


In September 2011, a group of protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park in New York City to decry what they perceived as increasing social and economic inequality in the United States. Calling their protest “Occupy Wall Street,” they argued that the concentration of wealth among the richest 1% in the United States was both economically unsustainable and inequitable, and needed to be changed. The protest then spread to other major cities, and the Occupy movement was born.

Why were people so upset? How much wealth is concentrated among the top 1% in our society? How did they acquire so much wealth? These are very real, very important questions in the United States now, and this module on poverty and economic inequality will help us address the causes behind this sentiment.

Introduction to Poverty and Economic Inequality

The labor markets that determine what workers are paid do not take into account how much income a family needs for food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Market forces do not worry about what happens to families when a major local employer goes out of business. Market forces do not take time to contemplate whether those who are earning higher incomes should pay an even higher share of taxes.

However, labor markets do create considerable inequalities of income. In 2012, the median American family income was $62,241 (the median is the level where half of all families had more than that level and half had less). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost nine million U.S. families were classified by the federal government as being below the poverty line in that year. Think about a family of three—perhaps a single mother with two children—attempting to pay for the basics of life on perhaps $17,916 per year. After paying for rent, healthcare, clothing, and transportation, such a family might have $6,000 to spend on food. Spread over 365 days, the food budget for the entire family would be about $17 per day. To put this in perspective, most cities have restaurants where $17 will buy you an appetizer for one.

This module explores how the U.S. government defines poverty, the balance between assisting the poor without discouraging work, and how federal antipoverty programs work. It also discusses income inequality—how economists measure inequality, why inequality has changed in recent decades, the range of possible government policies to reduce inequality, and the danger of a tradeoff that too great a reduction in inequality may reduce incentives for producing output.

Drawing the Poverty Line

Comparisons of high and low incomes raise two different issues: economic inequality and poverty. Poverty is measured by the number of people who fall below a certain level of income—called the poverty line—that defines the income needed for a basic standard of living. Incomeinequality compares the share of the total income (or wealth) in society that is received by different groups; for example, comparing the share of income received by the top 10% to the share of income received by the bottom 10%.

In the United States, the official definition of the poverty line traces back to a single person: Mollie Orshansky. In 1963, Orshansky, who was working for the Social Security Administration, published an article called “Children of the Poor” in a highly useful and dry-as-dust publication called the Social Security Bulletin. Orshansky’s idea was to define a poverty line based on the cost of a healthy diet.

Her previous job had been at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she had worked in an agency called the Bureau of Home Economics and Human Nutrition. One task of this bureau had been to calculate how much it would cost to feed a nutritionally adequate diet to a family. Orshansky found that the average family spent one-third of its income on food. She then proposed that the poverty line be the amount needed to buy a nutritionally adequate diet, given the size of the family, multiplied by three.

The current U.S. poverty line is essentially the same as the Orshansky poverty line, although the dollar amounts are adjusted each year to represent the same buying power over time. The U.S. poverty line in 2012 ranged from $11,720 for a single individual to $23,492 for a household of four people.

Figure 14.2 shows the U.S. poverty rate over time; that is, the percentage of the population below the poverty line in any given year.

The graph shows that the percentage of people below the poverty line was roughly 18% in the early 1960s, but had since mostly remained beneath 12% except for the years since the recession when the percentage has continued to increase to almost 16% in 2011 before dropping slightly to 15.0% in 2012.

Figure 14.2. The U.S. Poverty Rate since 1960. The poverty rate fell dramatically during the 1960s, rose in the early 1980s and early 1990s, and, after declining in the 1990s through mid-2000s, rose to 15.9% in 2011, which is close to the 1960 levels. In 2012, the poverty dropped slightly to 15.0%. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau)


The poverty rate declined through the 1960s, rose in the early 1980s and early 1990s, but seems to have been slightly lower since the mid-1990s. However, in no year in the last four decades has the poverty rate been less than 11% of the U.S. population—that is, at best about one American in nine is below the poverty line. In recent years, the poverty rate appears to have peaked at 15.9% in 2011 before dropping to 15.0% in 2012. Table 14.1 compares poverty rates for different groups in 2011.

Table 14.1 Poverty Rates by Group, 2011
Group Poverty Rate
Females 16.3%
Males 13.6%
White 13.0%
Black 27.6%
Hispanic 25.3%
Under age 18 21.9%
Ages 18–24 20.6%
Ages 25–34 15.9%
Ages 35–44 12.2%
Ages 45–54 10.9%
Ages 55–59 10.7%
Ages 60–64 10.8%
Ages 65 and older 8.7%

As you will see when we delve further into these numbers, poverty rates are relatively low for whites, for the elderly, for the well-educated, and for male-headed households. Poverty rates for females, Hispanics, and African Americans are much higher than for whites. While Hispanics and African Americans have a higher percentage of individuals living in poverty than others, most people in the United States living below the poverty line are white.

The concept of a poverty line raises many tricky questions. In a vast country like the United States, should there be a national poverty line? After all, according to the Federal Register, the median household income for a family of four was $102,552 in New Jersey and $57,132 in Mississippi in 2013, and prices of some basic goods like housing are quite different between states. The poverty line is based on cash income, which means it does not take into account government programs that provide assistance to the poor in a non-cash form, like Medicaid (health care for low-income individuals and families) and food aid. Also, low-income families can qualify for federal housing assistance. (These and other government aid programs will be discussed in detail later in this module.)

Should the poverty line be adjusted to take the value of such programs into account? Many economists and policymakers wonder whether the concept of what poverty means in the twenty-first century should be rethought. The following section explains the poverty lines set by the World Bank for low-income countries around the world.

Link It Up

Visit this website for more information on U.S. poverty.


The World Bank sets two poverty lines for low-income countries around the world. One poverty line is set at an income of $1.25/day per person; the other is at $2/day. By comparison, the U.S. 2011 poverty line of $17,916 annually for a family of three works out to $16.37 per person per day.

Clearly, many people around the world are far poorer than Americans, as Table 14.2 shows. China and India both have more than a billion people; Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa; and Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East. In all four of those countries, in the mid-2000s, a substantial share of the population subsisted on less than $2/day. Indeed, about half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, and 80 percent of the world lives on less than $10 per day. (Of course, the cost of food, clothing, and shelter in those countries can be very different from those costs in the United States, so the $2 and $2.50 figures may mean greater purchasing power than they would in the United States.)

Table 14.2. Poverty Lines for Low-Income Countries, mid-2000s (Source:
Country Share of Population below $1.25/Day Share of Population below $2.00/Day
Brazil (in 2009) 6.1% 10.8%
China (in 2009) 11.8% 27.2%
Egypt (in 2008) 1.7% 15.4%
India (in 2010) 32.7% 68.8%
Mexico (in 2010) 0.7% 4.5%
Nigeria (in 2010) 68.0% 84.5%

Any poverty line will be somewhat arbitrary, and it is useful to have a poverty line whose basic definition does not change much over time. If Congress voted every few years to redefine what poverty means, then it would be difficult to compare rates over time. After all, would a lower poverty rate mean that the definition had been changed, or that people were actually better off? Government statisticians at the U.S. Census Bureau have ongoing research programs to address questions like these.