The most common measure of poverty in the United States is the "poverty line" set by the U.S. government. This measure recognizes poverty as a lack of those goods and services commonly taken for granted by members of mainstream society. The official threshold is adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index. Poverty in the United States is cyclical in nature with roughly 12% to 17% living below the federal poverty line at any given point in time, and roughly 40% falling below the poverty line at some point within a 10 year time span. Most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75. There remains some controversy over whether the official poverty threshold over- or understates poverty.

In general the United States has some of the highest relative poverty rates among industrialized countries, reflecting both the high median income and high degree of inequality. In terms of pre-transfer absolute poverty rates, in 2000 the United States ranked tenth among sixteen developed countries, though it should be noted that 2000 was a 'trough' year and subsequently absolute poverty rates have increased. The US does considerably worse in post-transfer absolute poverty rates.

Those under the age of 18 were the most likely to be impoverished. In 2006, the poverty rate for minors in the United States was the highest in the industrialized world, with 21.9% of all minors and 30% of African American minors living below the poverty threshold. Moreover, the standard of living for those in the bottom 10% was lower in the U.S. than other developed nations except the United Kingdom, which has the lowest standard of living for impoverished children in the developed world. According to a 2008 report released by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, on average, rates of child poverty are persistently higher in rural parts of the country relative to suburban areas and share similar rates with many central cities.

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