Thinking locally, we can examine both overall poverty rates in our three-state region of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware and where poverty is the most severe. This report looks at county poverty rates in 2008, in the early part of the recent downturn, and compares that to rates from 2000, the peak of the last major expansion. Data for 2009, which will reflect more of the downturn’s impact, will not be released until the end of 2010.

Poverty Data: What It Is and How It Is Constructed

The Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program releases annual poverty estimates that are constructed from the standard census poverty measurement definitions, which are based on a set of income thresholds.1 These thresholds are constructed from estimates of essential family needs, such as food, which vary depending on family size and structure. A family with total pre-tax income less than its given poverty threshold is considered to be in poverty, and all family members are included in the poverty count. For example, a family of four, with two children under 18, would be considered to be living in poverty if the total 2008 household income was less than $21,834. The thresholds do not vary by region; hence, these poverty estimates do not take into account differences in the cost of living across regions.

Since 2006, SAIPE has released annual income and poverty estimates using data from the American Community Survey (ACS).2 The ACS samples come from about 3 million households representing all 3,141 counties in the U.S. The volume of data makes it possible to produce annual estimates for even the smallest of counties. In the future, SAIPE intends to use ACS data to provide estimates for more localized geographies such as census tracts.

  1. See 2008 thresholds at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/threshld/thresh08.html.
  2. In 1997, the SAIPE program released the first intercensal estimates of income and the number of people living in poverty at the state and county level. These estimates were modeled on survey data from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) of the Current Population Survey (CPS). The ASEC samples come from about 100,000 households representing around 1,100 counties. Consequently, annual estimates for counties were based on three-year averages of data.