The World Bank Group’s mission is to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity. In order to monitor progress and understand the types of poverty reduction strategies that could work, it is important to measure poverty regularly.
The international poverty line is set at $2.15 per person per day using 2017 prices. This means that anyone living on less than $2.15 a day is in extreme poverty. About 648 million people globally were in this situation in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt the biggest setback to global poverty-reduction efforts since 1990, increasing the number of people in extreme poverty by about 70 million, to 719 million people. Rising energy and food crises, caused in part by the war in Ukraine, and the effects of climate change contribute to an uneven recovery.
To better understand whether the world is on track to end extreme poverty, and how individual countries are faring, we must regularly measure progress. Poverty measurement and analysis have been a key aspect of the World Bank’s mission for years, as is our work to share knowledge and methods for how to measure poverty more accurately and more frequently.
By measuring poverty, we learn which poverty reduction strategies work, and which do not. Poverty measurement also helps developing countries gauge program effectiveness and guide their development strategy in a rapidly changing economic environment.
Last Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Measuring poverty and communicating poverty reduction results are long-standing priorities for the World Bank. In 2015, we set up a Commission on Global Poverty to provide recommendations on how to measure and monitor global poverty more comprehensively. The Commission provided 21 recommendations. They included broadening the scope of poverty measurements to include non-monetary measures, introducing a societal headcount measure of global poverty, and publishing a global profile of the poor.
The World Bank Group has committed to adopting most of these recommendations. In 2017, we introduced two complementary global poverty lines, which can be used as a benchmark for countries across the world whose level of development makes the International Poverty Line — $2.15 per day — not relevant. The $3.65 and $6.85 per person, per day poverty lines complement, not replace, the International Poverty Line.
In 2018, the World Bank report Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle broadened the ways we define and measure poverty, by:
- Presenting a new measure of societal poverty, integrating the absolute concept of extreme poverty and a notion of relative poverty reflecting needs across countries.
- Introducing a multi-dimensional poverty measure that is anchored on household consumption and the International Poverty Line, but broadens the measure by including information on access to education and utilities.
- Investigating the differences in poverty within households, including by age and gender.
Twice a year, the World Bank Group produces Poverty and Equity Briefs that highlight poverty, shared prosperity, and inequality trends in each country. In September 2019, the country Poverty Briefs also began to report data on multidimensional poverty indicators and progressively increased coverage to 144 countries (which appear in the latest PSPR).
In 2020, COVID-19 posed a new challenge to measuring the impact of the devastating pandemic, particularly on the poor and vulnerable. Surveys based on face-to-face interviews were hindered by social distancing protocols and limitations on mobility. Policy makers needed timely and relevant information on the impacts of the crisis as well as the effectiveness of their policy measures to save lives and support livelihoods. World Bank-supported phone surveys to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 on households and individuals were then implemented in 89 countries across all developing regions.
We are also working with country statistical offices to build local capacity and to help nations develop and implement their poverty surveys, as well as assess results.
On monitoring project impacts, the Bank Group has two main tools to improve and measure results in real-time: Survey of Well-being via Instant Frequent Tracking (SWIFT) and Iterative Beneficiary Monitoring (IBM) . These tools rely on mobile technology, and big and small data to produce information on specific project results and on consumption/income of project beneficiaries. IBM is currently mainstreamed in [more than 40] operations in FCV and non-FCV contexts. SWIFT plays an important role in linking poverty and sector-specific indicators through affordable data collection and analysis.
Together with our country clients, we are now developing and testing high-frequency survey methods that rely on mobile technology or prediction methods. Working with national statistical offices and non-governmental organizations, our Listening to Africa initiative is piloting the use of mobile phones to regularly collect information on living conditions in [six] African countries.
Official global, regional, and country poverty results are based on data that the World Bank compiles and disseminates through our Poverty and Inequality Platform .
The World Bank's advisory and technical support has led to survey and methodological improvements in many countries. Here are a few examples:
By combining population census and household surveys, we worked with the statistical office of the Republic of Serbia to develop a set of poverty maps that show variability in welfare across the country and estimate the poverty rates for small geographic areas, such as districts and municipalities. Similar efforts were carried out in Croatia .
Poverty in Tajikistan is seasonal and is linked to farm work and remittances. Given this nuance, the country introduced a new approach to assess and measure poverty that is based on international best-practices and relies on quarterly household budget survey. The new measure helps the government report on poverty both on a quarterly and annual basis.
Interactive poverty maps are a useful tool to visualize and compare poverty rates across geographic areas. Using three different datasets, the World Bank rolled out the interactive poverty maps for Bangladesh , which explore and visualize socioeconomic data at the district and the sub-district levels of the country. The World Bank has also produced a spatial database of Afghanistan , which visualizes data from reliable sources at the province and district level. And the World Bank partnered with the National Statistics and Information Authority of Afghanistan to produce the first set of poverty maps for Afghanistan for the provinces of Kabul and Herat.
Decades of civil war and political fragmentation have made Somalia one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. To better understand the impact of economic hardship on the lives of ordinary Somalis, the World Bank, together with the Somali statistical authorities created the Somali High Frequency survey and published the recent Somali Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment , which analyzes data and provides valuable insights about the underlying causes of poverty and the best strategies for fighting it. Voluntary video testimonials of Somalis were recorded and complemented the quantitative date to further zoom into their lives.
To fill the lack of reliable data in South Sudan, we have used an innovative questionnaire design for a high frequency survey to document the livelihoods, consumption patterns and perceptions of the people. In addition, we have started to collect video testimonials from people to capture the situation on the ground.
Last Updated: Apr 16, 2021
- High-Frequency Monitoring Systems to track the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic
- Poverty & Equity Data Portal
- PovcalNet—an online analysis tool to monitor global poverty
- New End-Poverty Tool: Surveys in Poorest Countries
- Why was the international poverty line raised to $1.90 a day?
- The Global Database of Shared Prosperity
- Tracking the Pandemic's Impact on Families from a Distance
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A Roadmap for Countries Measuring Multidimensional Poverty
Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2022: Correcting Course
- Fragility and Conflict: On the Front Lines of the Fight against Poverty
Data Collection in Fragile States: Innovations from Africa and Beyond
Since You Asked: How does the WBG measure poverty?
Around the bank group.
Find out what the World Bank Group's branches are doing on Measuring Poverty.
- International Finance Corporation (IFC)
- Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA)
- Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020 Report
- Living Standards Measurement Study
- Data Collection in Fragile States : Innovations from Africa and Beyond
- Using Micro-Data to Inform Durable Solutions for internally displaced persons (IDPs)
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2.1 The Measurement and Extent of Poverty
- Understand how official poverty in the United States is measured.
- Describe problems in the measurement of official poverty.
- Describe the extent of official poverty.
When US officials became concerned about poverty during the 1960s, they quickly realized they needed to find out how much poverty we had. To do so, a measure of official poverty, or a poverty line , was needed. A government economist, Mollie Orshanky, first calculated this line in 1963 by multiplying the cost of a very minimal diet by three, as a 1955 government study had determined that the typical American family spent one-third of its income on food. Thus a family whose cash income is lower than three times the cost of a very minimal diet is considered officially poor.
This way of calculating the official poverty line has not changed since 1963. It is thus out of date for many reasons. For example, many expenses, such as heat and electricity, child care, transportation, and health care, now occupy a greater percentage of the typical family’s budget than was true in 1963. In addition, this official measure ignores a family’s noncash income from benefits such as food stamps and tax credits. As a national measure, the poverty line also fails to take into account regional differences in the cost of living. All these problems make the official measurement of poverty highly suspect. As one poverty expert observes, “The official measure no longer corresponds to reality. It doesn’t get either side of the equation right—how much the poor have or how much they need. No one really trusts the data” (DeParle, et. al., 2011). We’ll return to this issue shortly.
The poverty line is adjusted annually for inflation and takes into account the number of people in a family: The larger the family size, the higher the poverty line. In 2010, the poverty line for a nonfarm family of four (two adults, two children) was $22,213. A four-person family earning even one more dollar than $22,213 in 2010 was not officially poor, even though its “extra” income hardly lifted it out of dire economic straits. Poverty experts have calculated a no-frills budget that enables a family to meet its basic needs in food, clothing, shelter, and so forth; this budget is about twice the poverty line. Families with incomes between the poverty line and twice the poverty line (or twice poverty ) are barely making ends meet, but they are not considered officially poor. When we talk here about the poverty level, then, keep in mind that we are talking only about official poverty and that there are many families and individuals living in near poverty who have trouble meeting their basic needs, especially when they face unusually high medical expenses, motor vehicle expenses, or the like. For this reason, many analysts think families need incomes twice as high as the federal poverty level just to get by (Wright, et. al., 2011). They thus use twice-poverty data (i.e., family incomes below twice the poverty line) to provide a more accurate understanding of how many Americans face serious financial difficulties, even if they are not living in official poverty.
The Extent of Poverty
With this caveat in mind, how many Americans are poor? The US Census Bureau gives us some answers that use the traditional, official measure of poverty developed in 1963. In 2010, 15.1 percent of the US population, or 46.2 million Americans, lived in official poverty (DeNavas-Walt, et. al., 2011). This percentage represented a decline from the early 1990s but was higher than 2000 and even higher than the rate in the late 1960s (see Figure 2.1 “US Poverty, 1959–2010” ). If we were winning the war on poverty in the 1960s (notice the sharp drop in the 1960s in Figure 2.1 “US Poverty, 1959–2010” ), since then poverty has fought us to a standstill.
Figure 2.1 US Poverty, 1959–2010
Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2011). Historical poverty tables: People. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/historical/people.html .
Another way of understanding the extent of poverty is to consider episodic poverty , defined by the Census Bureau as being poor for at least two consecutive months in some time period. From 2004 to 2007, the last years for which data are available, almost one-third of the US public, equal to about 95 million people, were poor for at least two consecutive months, although only 2.2 percent were poor for all three years (DeNavas-Walt, et al., 2010). As these figures indicate, people go into and out of poverty, but even those who go out of it do not usually move very far from it. And as we have seen, the majority of Americans can expect to experience poverty or near poverty at some point in their lives.
The problems in the official poverty measure that were noted earlier have led the Census Bureau to develop a Supplemental Poverty Measure . This measure takes into account the many family expenses in addition to food; it also takes into account geographic differences in the cost of living, taxes paid and tax credits received, and the provision of food stamps, Medicaid, and certain other kinds of government aid. This new measure yields an estimate of poverty that is higher than the rather simplistic official poverty measure that, as noted earlier, is based solely on the size of a family and the cost of food and the amount of a family’s cash income. According to this new measure, the 2010 poverty rate was 16.0 percent, equal to 49.1 million Americans (Short, 2011). Because the official poverty measure identified 46.2 million people as poor, the new, more accurate measure increased the number of poor people in the United States by almost 3 million. Without the help of Social Security, food stamps, and other federal programs, at least 25 million additional people would be classified as poor (Sherman, 2011). These programs thus are essential in keeping many people above the poverty level, even if they still have trouble making ends meet and even though the poverty rate remains unacceptably high.
A final figure is worth noting. Recall that many poverty experts think that twice-poverty data—the percentage and number of people living in families with incomes below twice the official poverty level—are a better gauge than the official poverty level of the actual extent of poverty, broadly defined, in the United States. Using the twice-poverty threshold, about one-third of the US population, or more than 100 million Americans, live in poverty or near poverty (Pereyra, 2011). Those in near poverty are just one crisis—losing a job or sustaining a serious illness or injury—away from poverty. Twice-poverty data paint a very discouraging picture.
- The official poverty rate is based on the size of a family and a minimal food budget; this measure underestimates the true extent of poverty.
- The official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, equal to more than 46 million Americans.
- About one-third of the US population, or more than 100 million Americans, have incomes no higher than twice the poverty line.
For Your Review
- Write a short essay that summarizes the problems by which the official poverty rate is determined.
- Sit down with some classmates and estimate what a family of four (two parents, two young children) in your area would have to pay annually for food, clothing, shelter, energy, and other necessities of life. What figure do you end up with? How does this sum of money compare with the official poverty line of $22,213 in 2010 for a family of four?
DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2010 (Current Population Reports, P60-239). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.
DeParle, J., Gebeloff, R., & Tavernise, S. (2011, November 4). Bleak portrait of poverty is off the mark, experts say. New York Times , p. A1.
Pereyra, L. (2011). Half in Ten campaign criticizes House Republican funding proposal . Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
Sherman, A. (2011). Despite deep recession and high unemployment, government efforts—including the Recovery Act—prevented poverty from rising in 2009, new census data show . Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Short, K. (2011). The research supplemental poverty measure: 2010 (Current Population Reports, P60-241). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.
Social Problems by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
How is poverty measured?
Poverty is measured in the United States by comparing a person’s or family’s income to a set poverty threshold or minimum amount of income needed to cover basic needs. People whose income falls under their threshold are considered poor.
The U.S. Census Bureau is the government agency in charge of measuring poverty. To do so, it uses two main measures, the official poverty measure and the Supplemental Poverty Measure, both of which are described in this FAQ.
Official Poverty Measure
The Census Bureau determines poverty status by using an official poverty measure (OPM) that compares pre-tax cash income against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 and adjusted for family size.
The OPM uses calculations of these three elements—income, threshold, and family—to estimate what percentage of the population is poor.
The official poverty estimates are drawn from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC), which is conducted in February, March, and April with a sample of approximately 100,000 addresses per year.
In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, the OPM national poverty rate was 12.7 percent. There were 40.6 million people in poverty.
The CPS ASEC questionnaire asks about income from more than 50 sources and records up to 27 different income amounts. Income is defined by the OPM to include, before taxes, the following sources:
- Unemployment and workers’ compensation
- Social Security
- Supplemental Security Income
- Public assistance
- Veterans’ payments
- Pension or retirement income
- Child support
- Educational assistance
- Other miscellaneous sources
The OPM does not include as income noncash government benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and housing assistance.
Poverty thresholds, the minimum income needed to avoid poverty, are updated annually for inflation using the Consumer Price Index , and adjusted for family size, composition, and age of householder.
OPM thresholds do not vary geographically.* In 2016, the OPM poverty threshold for a family of four was $24,339.
Poverty thresholds serve different purposes, including tracking poverty over time, comparing poverty across different demographic groups, and as the starting point for determining eligibility for a range of federal assistance programs.
(To learn more about using the poverty thresholds, or their administrative counterpoint, the poverty guidelines, for determining program eligibility, see FAQ: What are poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines? )
* The Census Bureau cautions that the thresholds should be interpreted as a “statistical yardstick” rather than as a complete accounting of how much income people need to live. They were intended to define and quantify poverty in America and to record changes in the number of persons and families in poverty and their characteristics over time.
Family is defined by the OPM as a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption who reside together. All such people (including related subfamily members) are considered as members of one family.
In 1959, when the official government poverty series began, poverty was estimated at 22 percent. Before that time, unofficial estimates by researchers found a poverty rate in 1914 of 66 percent; 78 percent in 1932; 32 percent in 1947; and 24 percent in 1958.**
Figure 1 shows more recent poverty rates, in 1968, 1990, and 2016, by age, race, and Hispanic origin, using the OPM.
Figure 1. Official U.S. poverty rates in 1968, 1990, and 2016 show variation by age and racial/ethnic group and over time
** R. D. Plotnick, E. Smolensky, E. Evenhouse, and S. Reilly, “The Twentieth-Century Record of Inequality and Poverty in the United States,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Vol. 3, eds. S. L. Engerman and R. E. Gallman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 249-299; G. Fisher, “Estimates of the Poverty Population under the Current Official Definition for Years before 1959,” mimeograph, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1986.
The Census Bureau releases the results of their analysis using the OPM every year in a report called Income and Poverty in the United States . The report includes charts and tables on information such as the following:
- household income by race and Hispanic origin, age of household head, nativity, region, residence, income inequality, and earnings and work experience;
- poverty estimates by race and Hispanic origin, age, sex, nativity, region, residence, work experience, disability status, educational attainment, and family type; and
- depth of poverty, ratio of income to poverty, income deficit, shared households, and estimates using alternative and experimental poverty measures.
To learn more about the official poverty measure, see the Census Bureau discussion, “How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty,” and the infographic, “ How Census Measures Poverty .”
Researchers and policymakers have long called for changes to the official poverty measure for a number of reasons. However, in spite of its shortcomings, detailed below, its salience in policymaking is noted by the economists Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan:
Few economic indicators are more closely watched or more important for policy than the official poverty rate. The poverty rate is often cited by policymakers, researchers, and advocates who are evaluating social programs that account for more than half a trillion dollars in government spending.
Principal criticisms of the OPM include:
- Its “headcount” approach identifies only the share of people who fall below the poverty threshold, but does not measure the depth of economic need;
- It does not reflect modern expenses and resources, by excluding significant draws on income such as taxes, work expenses, and out-of-pocket medical expenses, and excluding potentially sizable resources such as in-kind benefits (e.g., food assistance);
- It does not vary by geographic differences in cost of living within the contiguous United States despite huge variation;
- It is not adjusted for changes in the standard of living over time; and
- Its strict definition of measurement units—“family”—as persons living in the same household who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption does not reflect the nature of many households today, including those made up of cohabitors, unmarried partners with children from previous relationships, and foster children.
While the official measure remains the official national poverty statistic, the Census Bureau has been estimating poverty using a number of experimental measures as well, since the mid-1990s. See Poverty: Experimental Measures on the Census Bureau’s website for more about these approaches.
The most recent and prominent experimental measure, the Supplemental Poverty Measure—a work-in-progress that supplements but does not replace the official measure—is discussed below.
Supplemental Poverty Measure
The Census Bureau introduced the Supplemental Poverty Measure or SPM in 2010 to provide an alternative view of poverty in the United States that better reflects life in the 21st century, including contemporary social and economic realities and government policy.
As its name suggests, the SPM supplements but does not replace the official poverty measure, which remains the nation’s source for official poverty statistics and for determining means-tested program eligibility.
In a side-by-side comparison of the official poverty measure and the SPM, the Census Bureau notes their differences in measurement units, poverty threshold, threshold adjustments (e.g., by family size), updating thresholds, and what counts as resources, summarized in Table 3 below.
Source: L. Fox, “The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2016,” Current Population Reports P60-261 (RV), Revised September 2017.
Note: “Family” as defined by the Census Bureau is “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together; all such people (including related subfamily members) are considered as members of one family.”
A comparison of official and SPM poverty rates in 2016 for the total population and among three age groups: under age 18, adults ages 18 to 64, and elders age 65 and over, is shown in Figure 2.
For most groups, SPM poverty rates were higher than official poverty rates; children are an exception with 15.2 percent poor using the SPM and 18.0 percent poor using the official measure. Analysts attribute the lower SPM child poverty rate largely to the measure’s inclusion of noncash benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) benefits.
The much higher SPM poverty rates for people age 65 and older—14.5 percent vs. 9.3 percent using the OPM—partially reflect that the official thresholds are set lower for families with householders in this age group, while the SPM thresholds do not vary by age.
In addition, the SPM rate is higher for people age 65 and older because it includes out-of-pocket medical expenditures, which are typically high for the elderly, whereas the official measure does not take them into account.
Figure 2. Poverty rates using OPM and SPM measures for total population and by age group, 2016, show a higher OPM child poverty rate and higher SPM elderly poverty rates.
Welfare and Efficiency in Public Economics pp 71–147 Cite as
Poverty Measurement: A Survey
- Christian Seidl 4
- Conference paper
Though poverty is one of the most challenging problems from which mankind has ever suffered to my knowledge only one economist’s Nobel Lecture has dealt with this provocative issue. It began with the promising statement: “Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the economics of being poor we would know much of the economics that really matters.” 1 But then the curious reader will be rather disappointed discovering that this Nobel Lecture is mostly devoted to agricultural economics.
- Income Distribution
- Poverty Line
- Relative Deprivation
- Inequality Measure
- Poverty Measurement
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.
This article is dedicated to Professor Willi Albers on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.
I am indebted to James Foster, Nanak Kakwani, and John Weymark for useful discussions.
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Seidl, C. (1988). Poverty Measurement: A Survey. In: Bös, D., Rose, M., Seidl, C. (eds) Welfare and Efficiency in Public Economics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-73370-3_4
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Poverty measurement and analysis have been a key aspect of the World Bank’s mission for years, as is our work to share knowledge and methods for how to measure poverty more accurately and more frequently. By measuring poverty, we learn which poverty reduction strategies work, and which do not.
Table 2.3 “Explanations of Poverty” summarizes these explanations. Poverty results from the fact that poor people lack the motivation to work and have certain beliefs and values that contribute to their poverty. Poverty results from problems in society that lead to a lack of opportunity and a lack of jobs.
Because the official poverty measure identified 46.2 million people as poor, the new, more accurate measure increased the number of poor people in the United States by almost 3 million. Without the help of Social Security, food stamps, and other federal programs, at least 25 million additional people would be classified as poor (Sherman, 2011).
poverty numbers rise, conditions have indeed worsened (and conversely, when poverty measures fall, that progress has been made). The first question in judging measures is how well does each index reflect basic properties desirable on philosophical grounds.15 A second important use for poverty measures is descriptive. Poverty statistics
How is poverty measured? Poverty is measured in the United States by comparing a person’s or family’s income to a set poverty threshold or minimum amount of income needed to cover basic needs. People whose income falls under their threshold are considered poor. The U.S. Census Bureau is the government agency in charge of measuring poverty.
Thon, D. (1984): “A Poverty Measure.” Indian Economic Journal 30: 55–70. Google Scholar Townsend, P. (1970): “Measures and Explanations of Poverty in High Income and Low Income Countries: The Problems of Operationalizing the Concepts of Development, Class and Poverty.” In The Concept of Poverty, edited by P. Townsend. London ...
There are several approaches to understand this phenomenon. These approaches can be individualistic or structural in nature. Poverty is not just an economic concept but is also political. There...
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In this essay I intend to define poverty, explain definitions and measurements of poverty absolute and relative. I will identify groups experiencing poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. I will then discuss the New Right and Social Democrat explanations for poverty, and assess their weakness and strengths.