Poverty, the new poverty data, and definitions

Written by: Shawn Teigen

U.S. Census poverty data for 2015 were released this week. Utah Foundation has particular interest in poverty since it was part of the 2016 Utah Priorities Project.

Homelessness and poverty was the 9th most important issue to voters in 2016. These issues are closely linked in that poverty is cited as one of the major reasons of homelessness, particularly when it is experienced in conjunction with unaffordable housing situations, losing a job, or experiencing a healthcare crisis. People in poverty are often unable to provide for the basic necessities or can barely afford all of them. Moreover, affordable housing resources are scarce, and the minimum wage doesn’t always help; in only 12 counties and one metro area in the nation does a full-time, minimum wage job provide enough earnings to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment.


In 2015, 46 million people were in poverty in the nation. In Utah, a total of 332,000 people or 11.3% of the population were living in poverty in 2015. That is a decrease of 0.4% from 2014, but still 1.6% above 2007. Women and children are more likely to be in poverty than men and Utahns over 18.

But what is poverty? The World Bank refers to poverty as a “multidimensional social phenomenon,” and its “definition and causes vary by gender, age, culture, and other social and economic contexts.” Accordingly, poverty can be defined in pure economic terms (i.e. income poverty, extreme poverty) and in relative or absolute terms. The U.S. Census follows Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Statistical Policy Directive 14 to determine who is in poverty by using a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition.


This is based off of a measure that was originally designed in the early 1960s. Whether this measure needs to be update has been a topic for debate.


Assistance in writing this post was provided by former Utah Foundation intern Fatema Ahad.


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