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Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population while earning more than 20% of the world’s total income. Despite this, one in 10 Americans lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

January is National Poverty in America Awareness Month. Those living in poverty can find it difficult to afford necessities like housing or food. Government data sheds some light on how many people live in poverty and some of the challenges they may face.

What counts as poverty in the US?

The federal government defines poverty based on household size and income. In 2021, a family of four would be considered impoverished by the government if the household income was at or below $26,500. In contrast, the median household income for a family of the same size was $90,657.

The government uses the poverty threshold to determine eligibility for some government services. Those programs can include housing, healthcare, food or income assistance designed to set a basic standard of living.

How many people live in poverty in the US and how has that changed over time?

As of 2020, 11.4% of the US lives in poverty. That’s a one percentage point increase over 2019, the first poverty rate increase in six years. The pandemic played a role in that as millions of people lost their jobs or had their lives otherwise affected by COVID-19.

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Compared to historical numbers, the current poverty rate is low. In 1959, 22.4% of US households fell below the poverty line. The 1960s had the biggest decrease in poverty, dropping to 12.1% by 1969.

Since then, the percentage of people in poverty has fluctuated with economic recessions or expansions. The Great Recession pulled the poverty rate to 15.1% by 2010. The subsequent recovery put poverty at a record low of 10.4% as of 2019.

How many people are food insecure?

Food insecurity is the limited or unknown availability of nutritional, safe foods to meet the basic needs of everyone in a household. In 2020, 35% of households with incomes below the federal poverty line were food insecure and 10.5% of all households experienced food insecurity, according to the US Department of Agriculture. About 4% of households experienced the most extreme form of food insecurity, meaning people ate less or skipped multiple meals because they lacked access to food, roughly the same as in 2019.

Food insecurity among children increased during the pandemic.

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For households with children, 7.6% had at least one food-insecure child in 2020, an increase of 1.3 percentage points over 2019. About 16% of families with a child 6 years or younger were food insecure in 2020. Children with unemployed parents have higher rates of food insecurity than children with employed parents. Seventeen percent of unemployed households with children were food insecure last year compared to 6% of households with full-time employed parents.

How many people are homeless in the US?

Many people in poverty also face challenges with housing. More than 580,466 people —18 out of every 100,000 people in the US — were homeless as of January 2020, according to an annual Department of Housing and Urban Development report. The data comes from a national survey done over 10 days at the end of January. The timing of the 2020 survey means the data from the survey doesn’t include how the COVID-19 pandemic affected homelessness or homeless population statistics.

The number of people experiencing homelessness increased by 12,751 or 2.2% from 2019 to 2020. That’s the fourth year in a row with a rise in homelessness. Despite the recent increases, the homeless population is 10% lower than in 2007 when the data was first collected.

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The homeless population is more likely to be male and Black compared to the US overall. In 2020, about 61% of people experiencing homelessness were male compared to 49.2% of the total population and 39% Black compared to 14.2% of the total population. In 2020, close to one in five homeless Americans were children, or 106,364 children in total.

This is a small sample of how poverty can be measured with government data. USAFacts also collects other data on poverty. Keep track of how the pandemic continues to affect poverty measures at the COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Hub.

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