The federal government began measuring poverty in 1959. During the 1960s President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a national war on poverty. Researchers realized that very few statistical tools were available to measure the number of Americans who continued to live in poverty in one of the most affluent nations in the world. In order to fight this "war," it had to be determined who was poor and why.
During the early 1960s Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration suggested that the poverty income level be defined as the income sufficient to purchase a minimally adequate amount of goods and services. The necessary data for defining and pricing a full "market basket" of goods was not available then, nor is it available now. Orshansky noted, however, that in 1955 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had published a "Household Food Consumption Survey," which showed that the average family of three or more persons spent approximately one-third of its after-tax income on food. She multiplied the USDA's 1961 economy food plan (a no-frills food basket meeting the then-recommended dietary allowances) by three.
Basically this defined a poor family as any family or person whose after-tax income was not sufficient to purchase a minimally adequate diet if one-third of the income was spent on food. Differences were allowed for size of family, gender of the head of the household, and whether it was a farm or nonfarm family. The threshold (the level at which poverty begins) for a farm family was set at 70 percent of a nonfarm household. (The difference between farm and nonfarm households was eliminated in 1982.)
The poverty guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are based on the poverty thresholds as established by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The poverty thresholds, used for statistical purposes, are updated each year to reflect inflation. People with incomes below the applicable threshold are classified as living below the poverty level.
The poverty guidelines vary by family size and composition. For a family of four in 2004 the poverty guideline was $18,850 in annual income. A person living alone who earned less than $9,310 was considered poor, as was a family of eight members making less than $31,570. Notice, in Table 3.1, that the poverty level is considerably higher in Alaska and Hawaii, where the cost of living is higher than in the contiguous forty-eight states and the District of Columbia.
The poverty guidelines set by HHS are very important because various government agencies use them as the basis for eligibility to key assistance programs. HHS uses the poverty guidelines to determine Community Services Block Grants, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Block Grants, and Head Start allotments. The guidelines are also the basis for funding the USDA's Food Stamp Program, National School Lunch Program, and Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The U.S. Department of Labor uses the guidelines to determine funding for the Job Corps and other employment and training programs under the Workforce Investment Act. Some state and local governments choose to use the federal poverty guidelines for some of their own programs, such as state health insurance programs and financial guidelines for child support enforcement.