What Is Poverty?

This lesson is the first in a series of lessons called “Issues of Poverty.” Students explore the causes of poverty in the United States and the factors that perpetuate it. The four lessons aim to challenge the idea that poverty is simply the result of individual shortcomings. Students will examine the ways poverty is closely related to economic and political policy, and will work to discover why it disproportionately affects members of non-dominant groups—that is, groups that have historically been oppressed.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • find out how the federal government defines poverty
  • compare the poverty level with the cost of meeting basic needs in their community
  • compare the cost of meeting basic needs with the federally mandated minimum wage
  • brainstorm and learn more about possible solutions to poverty
Essential Questions
  • What is poverty? How do different individuals and groups define it?
  • Who is responsible for poverty? Who is responsible for ending it?
  • What can be done to eradicate poverty?


In this introductory lesson, students compare the federally defined poverty level with the cost of basic necessities in their own community. They research what percentage of people in their community and/or state live in poverty, and calculate what wage people would need to earn to meet his or her basic needs. Students go on to explore possible solutions to poverty. 



poverty [pov-ur-tee] (noun) the condition of lacking sufficient money or goods to meet basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing


Additional Resources

For an in-depth analysis of poverty, see One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, by Mark Robert Rank.

Income, Poverty and Health Insurance in the United States: 2010--Highlights



1. In this first activity, you’re going to explore your own beliefs about poverty. (Note: Post a sign in one corner of the room that says “Strongly agree” and one in the opposite corner that says “Strongly disagree.” Make a line connecting the two corners with tape, chalk or string.) Think about this statement for a few moments [or “for a minute”], then go stand anywhere along the line that shows how strongly you agree or disagree with it. (Note: Read aloud the following statement: Individuals are responsible for living in poverty. They have no one to blame but themselves.) When everyone is standing on the line, talk with the people nearest you about why you chose that place to stand. Explain to each other your beliefs about who is responsible for poverty. 

2. Form a group with three or four of the people who are standing nearest you on the line. With your group, read Federal Poverty Level and study the table that shows the FPL for 2011. Does it seem high or low to you? In other words, would you think that a person living in poverty would have more or less money than the amount defined by the federal government?

3. The FPL is meant to identify what it would cost a family of a specific size to meet its basic needs. Think of your group as a family that lives together in a household. (The size of your group will be the size of your household.) Make a list of what your basic needs are. Use the Cost-of-Living Calculations sheet to record your work. Start with housing and food. What else is essential for your household? This may not be as clear-cut as you think at first. For example, is a car essential? A cell phone? Health insurance? The members of your group will have to come to agreement about what you need and what you can live without. Find out how much these essentials cost in your community. To find the cost of housing, for example, look at rental notices, keeping in mind that you need to decide how many rooms your household needs. To find the cost of food, make a shopping list of what your family would need for a week, then go to a supermarket and price the items. You might assign different items to different people to price. When each person has gathered his or her data, reconvene. Calculate the monthly costs of basic needs for your family [or “your family group]. Write them on the sheet on which you have listed the items. Add up the monthly costs, and then multiply by 12 to find out the amount of money a family of your size would need in order to survive in your community. 

4. Compare your group’s cost of basic needs in your community with the FPL’s poverty level for 2011. What do you notice?

5. Find out what the federal minimum wage is. (Note: If students need a starting point, suggest the Department of Labor site.) Calculate the annual income of someone who works full time (40 hours a week) at a minimum-wage job. How does this annual income compare with the federal poverty rate? How does it compare with the cost of basic needs in your community? 

6. Look back at your household’s expenses. Try making ends meet in two ways. First, what can you cut from your list? For example, could you live in a smaller apartment? Could you do without health insurance? Could you buy less expensive food? As you make the cuts, think about how your life would be without the items that you had considered basic needs. List some of the effects these cuts would have on your quality of life. Then try another approach: Figure out what hourly wage someone would need to earn in order to meet her basic needs in your community.

7. Now return to the original activity. Listen again to the opening statement: Individuals are responsible for living in poverty. They have no one to blame but themselves. Think about it for a few moments, then go stand on the place on the line that shows how strongly you agree or disagree with the statement. Discuss the following questions with the people near you on the line:Has your position changed? If so, what has caused it to change? If not, why not? Then return to your seat and write a response to someone who says that anyone who works hard can rise from poverty.

8. What role, if any, do you think society should play in ending poverty? Do a quick research scan to get some ideas of how different people and groups address poverty. Then, as a class, brainstorm various solutions to poverty. A few examples to get you started: raising the minimum wage, training workers so that they can get better-paying jobs, offering hiring incentives to employers, providing child-care subsidies, etc. List the class’s ideas. Volunteer to find out more about one of them. You can work on your own or join with others who are interested in the same solution. Then report to the class about what you learn. In your report, explain how the approach would work and why some people consider it effective.

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