According to World Vision, poverty is defined as a "lack of access to basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter." The term can also apply to those whose conditions prevent them from acquiring education, medical help, or stable employment due to a lack of money. In the United States, the government sets poverty thresholds and guidelines each year to indicate the income a person or family needs to cover their basic needs. These measures are based on the Consumer Price Index, which measures the costs of goods and services. The U.S. poverty guidelines fail to consider regional differences in the cost of living. Thus, the experience of poverty may vary widely from state to state.
In 2022, the poverty guideline for a single-member household is $13,590 a year. An individual earning at or below this amount is considered to be living in poverty. The threshold increases by $4,720 for each additional household member, making the poverty guideline for a two-person household $18,310 a year and $27,750 for a family of four. To put that into perspective, a minimum-wage worker earning $7.50 an hour earns $15,000 a year working full-time, putting them below the poverty threshold for a family of two.
Several factors impact poverty rates and levels of financial well-being, including unemployment levels, educational attainment, inherited poverty, and the systematic exclusion of certain populations from receiving the full benefit of the country's institutions. Unfortunately, poverty is also associated with worse health outcomes, lower living expectancies, substandard housing and homelessness, and poor educational opportunities. In 2020, the U.S. poverty rate was 11.4%, up a percentage point from the previous year. The rate varies widely from state to state, with most wealthy states having a poverty rate below 9%. In contrast, the nation's poorest state has a poverty rate twice that.
Poorest U.S. States
- Poverty Rate: 18.8%
- Median household income $44,966
- Unemployment Rate: 4.1%
- Rate of Higher Education Attainment: 24.5%
- Life Expectancy: 74.4 years
Mississippi is the poorest U.S. state, with 18.8% of its residents living in poverty. The state also has the highest child poverty rate, with 27.9% of its under-18 population meeting federal poverty guidelines. Fifteen percent of residents are food insecure. The median household income in the state is $44,966, the lowest in the country. Unfortunately, Mississippi also has the country's highest obesity rate, at 40.8%, and the lowest life expectancy of 74.4 years.
- Poverty Rate: 17.4%
- Median household income $50,935
- Unemployment Rate: 4.1%
- Rate of Higher Education Attainment: 27.2%
- Life Expectancy: 75.7 years
Louisiana is the second-poorest state in the country, with 17.4% of its population at or below the poverty line. Louisiana also has the second-highest rate of childhood poverty, with 26.8% of its children living at or below the poverty line. Louisiana's median household income is $50,935, the third-lowest in the nation. Educational attainment rates are low, with 86.9% of residents having a high school education and only 27.2% holding a Bachelor's degree or higher.
- Poverty Rate: 16.2%
- Median household income $50,822
- Unemployment Rate: 5.3%
- Rate of Higher Education Attainment: 30.1%
- Life Expectancy: 76.9 years
New Mexico has a poverty rate of 16.2%. Nearly a quarter of the state's children are living in poverty. Unfortunately, New Mexico's public schools are ranked the worst in the U.S., with the second-highest dropout rates of any state. Only 73.9% of students in the state graduate on time. New Mexico's median household income is $50,822, the third-lowest in the country.
- Poverty Rate: 14.7%
- Median household income $50,540
- Unemployment Rate: 3.2%
- Rate of Higher Education Attainment: 24.9%
- Life Expectancy: 75.7 years
The fourth-poorest state in the U.S. is Arkansas. Arkansas's median household income is the second-lowest at $50,540. The state's overall poverty rate is 14.7%, and 21.7% of the state's children live in poverty. Arkansas's obesity rate is 37.4%, the third-highest among all states, behind only West Virginia and Mississippi. Life expectancy in the state is also among the lowest in the nation.
- Poverty Rate: 14.6%
- Median household income $51,615
- Unemployment Rate: 3.6%
- Rate of Higher Education Attainment: 23.1%
- Life Expectancy: 74.5 years
West Virginia is the fifth-poorest U.S. state, with a median household income of $51,615 and a poverty rate of 14.6%. West Virginians have the lowest level of higher education attainment in the nation, with only 23.1% of its residents holding a Bachelor's degree or higher. The state also has the second-lowest life expectancy in the country, at a mere 74.5 years.
Nationwide, more than thirty-seven million Americans fell below the poverty line in 2020. Of these, 17.9 million fell below half the poverty line - with an income of $13,123 for a family of four. Poverty is felt disproportionately by certain ethnic and minority groups in the United States. Among African American residents, the national poverty rate is 19.5%, more than twice the rate of 8.2% experienced by the White populace. The Hispanic poverty rate is 17%, and the Native American poverty rate is 23%. People with disabilities have the highest incidents of poverty in the nation, with 25% falling below the poverty line.
For states with the highest incidents of poverty, educational attainment is lower, health outcomes are worse, and life expectancies are shorter than in the wealthiest states. Not surprisingly, the nation's poorest states also tend to rank lowest in quality of life metrics and are often ranked the worst states to live in. To improve the outlook for their residents, these states require increased investment in education, measures to fight income inequality, and additional safety nets, such as unemployment insurance.