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On Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the percentage of Americans living in poverty last year (15.1%) was higher than it’s been since 1993. That’s higher than the 2010 poverty rates of Switzerland, Indonesia, Hungary and Vietnam.
In 2010, the poverty line in the U.S. for a family of four was $22,314. Technically speaking, the poverty threshold is a figure set by the U.S. government to define the point at which someone can no longer afford the goods and services that most people in mainstream society take for granted.
There’s a long history of debate about whether poverty in the U.S. is over- or understated by this threshold, but the Obama administration also changed what qualifies as poverty in 2010. The old definition, according to The Washington Post, was based on the cost of food and a family’s cash income, whereas the new one also considers expenses like housing, utilities, child care and medical treatment. But the administration sidestepped a political fistfight by keeping the old definition as the basis for the official federal poverty line, which determines whether someone is eligible for federal assistance programs. The new definition is being used mostly to calculate how many people in the U.S. are officially “poor.”
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Although the poverty line is uniform across all states, it’s important to remember that some states have much higher or lower costs of living. After all, $22,314 will buy a very different lifestyle in a small town in Oklahoma or Tennessee (which tied for lowest cost of living in 2010) than in Los Angeles (California had the highest cost of living of the contiguous states).
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