Is $18,400/year (for 4) a fair or realistic "poverty line"?

I think official figures on poverty in America might be grossly underestimated. The Department of Health and Human Services [url=]Poverty Guidelines put the poverty line at $18,400 a year for a family of four. Is that anywhere close to realistic? As a bottom-of-the-career-ladder public librarian, I make about three times that. I live alone, by no means extravagantly, in a small town with a relatively low cost of living. And I live from paycheck to paycheck. (In fact, I might have to start moonlighting soon to make ends meet.) If my income went down to, say, $17,960 (twice the official poverty line for an individual), I guess I’d have to move into a storage unit.

Misstated: I make a bit more than twice the poverty line for a family of four. (Wishful thinking sometimes gets in the way of math . . .) Point still holds, though.

If you’re barely making ends meet as a single person at roughly $36,800 a year then you’re living beyond your means.

In my early 20’s I was living in Dallas, Texas making a little over $20,000 a year and doing just fine. I made enough to feed, clothe, own a car, and keep a decent roof over my head and although I didn’t usually have a whole lot of money for vacation I did manage to swing a trip to Orlando, Florida. Of course almost all my furniture was old stuff I swiped from my parents so it isn’t as if I went it totatally alone. I don’t know how a single person could make $36,800 a year and barely get by unless you’ve got a large expense such as housing or medical bills. Then again maybe the lifestyle I accepted when I was 20 isn’t something I’d find acceptable in my 40’s.

Is $18,400 an acceptable poverty line for a family of four? (Your link didn’t work for me by the way.) I suspect it would depend on where you live exactly. Assigning any number is somewhat arbitrary as I’m sure life wouldn’t be significntly improved at $19,000 or $20,000 a year.


Fixed link.

My brother lives alone and works two crappy part time jobs, and he only eats once a day to make ends meet. I think he probably makes around $20K-$23K/year. $18K for four people is extremely unrealistic. You need subsidies to live a healthy lifestyle (in my opinion). Less than $5K/person? I don’t think so. Your rent, figured at the “1/4 of your income” amount, would be $375/mo. I don’t even know of a shitty apartment that would go for that cheap.

My rent is $650/month for a one-bedroom apartment. I have a lot of debts (it took me more than a year to find a full-time library job after I got my master’s degree), and I have asthma and some other problems, and my health insurance* and the prescription medicine costs are a killer. The latter should improve after my job’s health insurance kicks in next month, but how many poor people have jobs with that kind of benefit? (Many do qualify for Medicaid, but I’m simply assuming that the official poverty line is based on counting the value of all forms of public assistance as income; the HHS page doesn’t make that clear, but it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.)
*BTW, my health insurance premium almost doubled when I moved from Hillsborough County to Miami-Dade. Blue Cross says that’s all determined by the state Department of Insurance.

There ya go then. 18k here would be poverty here. Since you live in Florida, and your rent is twice what a decent apartment costs here, I will assume that cost of living is around twice what it is here. The math comes out exactly the same. You make twice the amount but pay twice the rent. FWIW, my last three homes were, 3 bedroom apartment: $315 (lived alone), 4 bedroom apartment (3 other roommates): my share- $255 (Campus style living- rent by the room, if somebody moved out your rent didn’t go up- full amentities, Pool, fitness center, pool hall, computer centre, volleyball, tennis and basketball courts, etc), and my current is a home, I pay 300 a month but have two other roommates. It is a 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 2 car garage home in a fabulous neigborhood. Rent around here for lower end homes (I go for mid), runs 225 for a cheap place, or 500 or a 3 bedroom duplex (total rent, not split). Upper runs around 400-450 for some of the very elite apartment complexes. Of course a very nice home runs from 120k to 389k for land and a 5 bed house.

I wouldn’t want to even live on 34k here though, so take that as you would (I do, but I am a student…). The thing I don’t like about cost of living figures is that for a cost of living to be twice something, more than rent would have to cost twice as much. You may pay twice the rent I do, but a loaf of bread doesn’t cost you $8 (3.99 for Sara Lee), Milk doesn’t cost you $7, and gas probably doesn’t cost you twice the $2.89 it is here. (probably like $3.15 tops)

I don’t see how it would be possible to live on 18k with a family of four. 1500 a month before taxes. Probably 1150 after taxes. So assuming here you could find a 3 bedroom duplex- 500 a month. 650 left for food (200 if shop frugal), Car insurance (say: 50 if liability), 100 for utilities if heat is low and air, if used is like at 79). 30 for basic phone, 150 for gasoline. That leaves 200 hundred for things like school supplies, clothes, savings, basic cable or any other luxaries or things I am forgetting. If rent is like 800 or more, you definately have to live more frugal.

I don’t see how they do it.

BrainGlutton I don’t think it’s fair to include such things as past debts and excessive medical expenses without adjusting your income (or the poverity line) to compensate.

Also the idea of poverty is sort of lost in the US, to me real poverty means no cable (or sat) TV, no internet, no car, no name brand clothes, no luxury foods, perhaps basic phone service, low electric bills (very limited a/c if at all), no new television - just the ones that you had before you fell below the poverty line of TV’s gifted to you. Now if you need something (like a cellphone) to keep the low wage job you do have, then that would be OK.

Overall, no, not for food and gas, etc. I would expect to pay exactly the same for most things in Missouri as in Florida. My rent might be on the high side because rental property is so hard to find in Homestead. (Believe it or not, this town still hasn’t entirely recovered from Hurricane Andrew in '92.) In St. Petersburg, I was able to rent an efficiency apartment for $250/month. In Homestead, I can’t even find an efficiency. But I’d rather pay what I’m paying than find an efficiency in Miami and commute! Imagine what the gas would cost!

People living in SoCal making that low a wage are in serious trouble. 20 years ago, I was able to find a one bedroom apartment in Orange right next to the railroad tracks for $515/month- no way you find that now.

People making the state minimum wage ($6.75 here) are stuggling to survive.

Less than $20,000 for a family of four? Damn near impossible, at least where I live.

Gas could not possibly cost you $400 per month, but as long as you like where you are living, by all means, pay for the short commute.

It is all about location. Poverty level does not allow for medical insurance other than state/federal aide. It will include food stamps. All that said I could not conceive of a family of four making a go of it in one of the more expensive states. That figure is only barely realistic for the poorest states. It would be a rare find to get even a one-bedroom apartment in NJ or NY for $650 per month. A two bedroom starts at around $1000 for most of this area. Forget about owning a car and having it insured (NJ requirement), forget about health insurance (at least $6000 per year, probably more). So if you found a 2 bedroom apartment for $12000 per year, after food and clothing you would still require a lot of charity and food stamps to keep from being homeless. If a medical emergency occurs, you will get minimal charity care via the local Emergency room. None of this allows for much money left for phone, electric or most importantly heating. So you actually would need to find a 1-bedroom apartment that included heat.
Could some families pull this off? I guess so but it would be a lot simpler in the south where heating is a minor issue and rents are much lower.


For instance, I chose Santa Ana, CA for an internet search of rental apartments. Santa Ana has both nice areas and severely depressed barrios.

The range for apartments (studio - 2 bedroom) was $772-$1700. The cheapest 2 bedroom I found was $984 per month for a 910 sf 2 bedroom apt, in a not-that-nice area.

The American poverty line is pretty good. It is calculated based on the Agriculture Department’s estimate of food costs for a family of four and then multiplied by 4(?), on the theory that food takes up 20% (?) of a family’s expenses.

Where this goes haywire is in high real estate market areas.

Why is this system good?

Well because it is constantly recalculated. In other countries (no cite) the poverty line is set and more or less never moved. The American one rises and falls based on the cost of a basket of food.

BrainGlutton I don’t think it’s fair to include such things as past debts and excessive medical expenses without adjusting your income (or the poverity line) to compensate.

Well, in any case, it’s not about me. I only used my own income as a rough-and-ready benchmark. I know I’m not poor. I know a person could make considerably less than I and still not be poor. But how much less? Where does it make sense to draw the line? That’s an important question to answer, if only for the sake of forming an accurate picture of the incidence of poverty in America, and comparing it to that of, say, Europe. An issue that often comes up in this forum, but how can we discuss it meaningfully unless we’re sure that figures cited for Europe and America are based on the same definitions of “poverty” and that both definitions are reasonable?

That’s not entirely accurate. Many, if not most, European countries use a relative poverty threshold, meaning that a person is considered poor if they make less than, say, 30% of the median income.

In the United States, the measure used to be, basically, “the cost of the absolute minimum amount of the cheapest food you can buy and still survive, times three.”

It’s now tied to the CPI, which excludes gas and food.

Here’s a decent illustration of the effect of a relative vs. an absolute measure:

When I lived in Newark, I paid $500 in rent for a run-down 1-bedroom apt in a run-down highrise. Utilities were included, thank goodness. But if you wanted a guaranteed parking spot (which is not a trivial matter at all), you had to fork out $600 a year. There were people who couldn’t afford this who would stress out every evening trying to hunt down a legal parking spot (and then have to wake up really early on Monday mornings when street parking isn’t allowed).

On the $12,000 I lived on during my first year up there, I certainly felt poor and I was all by myself. But I didn’t even qualify for food stamps.

BrainGlutton, consider yourself lucky. Homestead is el-cheapo compared to Miami. I’m paying close to a $1000 in rent. I’d rather live back in northern Jersey, where at least you can get the benefits of living close to Manhattan. What am I paying for now? Living in Hurricane Alley?

From the same article (it’s “copyleft” material, mods!):

People argue both sides of the issue because A) the discussion is often a political debate, with one side trying to ‘prove’ their case to affect policy, B) There’s no firm understanding of what ‘poverty’ is, so it’s easy to re-define it to fit your argument.

There are lots of ways to look at it. For example, the poverty line in the U.S. is about TWICE the world average income, and about 20 times higher than the average income in the 3rd world. People living in ‘poverty’ in the U.S. often have larger homes or apartments than average citizens in many countries, air conditiong, television, video games, computers, either a car or access to good quality public transit, free education, and access to health care under Medicaid.

What it really comes down to is what you believe should be a minimum lifestyle for someone in poverty. There’s no question that a family of four can survive on $18,000 per year (survival being defined as, “Not dying of starvation”). So what we’re arguing about is how good a standard of living must be before someone is no longer considered to be impoverished.

BTW, Sam, how is “poverty” officially defined in Canada?