Adult Education

Focus: Work and Economic Security


To understand, in financial terms, what is meant by “the poverty line” — and to develop an awareness of what constitutes a “living wage” in the United States.


No one can predict the future. And yet, while most of us have some idea of what the next day may bring, for people living in poverty, tomorrow is a place of frightening uncertainty. For many poor around this nation, even the smallest of economic changes today can easily send them plummeting further into hunger and misery. Even for the working poor, financial security — having the means to achieve a stable, fulfilling life for themselves and their families — is a tenuous proposition.

Food, shelter, clothing, health care, transportation— these are only the beginnings of the basic necessities of modern American living. Each year, the federal government calculates the minimum amount of money required by families to meet these and other basic needs. The resulting calculation is what is commonly referred to as the “poverty line.” For 2014, the government has set the poverty guidelines at:

in Family
48 Contiguous
States & DC
Alaska Hawaii
1 $11,880 $14,840 $13,670
2 $16,020 $20,020 $18,430
3 $20,160 $25,200 $23,190
4 $24,300 $30,380 $27,950
5 $28,440 $35,560 $32,710
6 $32,580 $40,740 $37,470
7 $36,730 $45,920 $42,430
8 $40,890 $51,120 $47,010
For each additional
person, add:
$4,160 $5,200 $4,780

Source: Federal Register, 781 FR 4036, January 22, 2016, pp. 4036-4037

The above figures are based on the government’s calculations as to the amount of money families need to feed themselves and purchase such basic goods and services as health care and housing. And yet, many in America believe that while such calculations are helpful for setting requirements for governmental assistance programs, the incomes set at the “poverty line” are not enough for families to survive.


Activity 1: “Hard Living on the Poverty Line”

Is the poverty line a realistic measure? Can families whose income is at the poverty line have enough money to secure the basic needs to live in America today? Can people hold a steady job, work full time and still find themselves falling below the poverty line?

Have your group follow these steps to better understand the personal economics of poverty:

1. Determine what the minimum wage is in the United States today – that is, the dollar amount per hour. Then, calculate what a worker earning that much per hour could make in a year, based upon a 40-hour week and 52 weeks a year.

A full-time worker, earning the minimum wage of $7.25, working 2080 hours a year, would earn $15,080.

2. Refer to the federal poverty guidelines and find the income level needed for a family of three to be considered “above the poverty line.”

For a family of 3 living in the 48 continuous states, the poverty line is set at $20,160.

3. Compare the annual earnings of an individual working full time at minimum wage and the poverty line for a family of three. Note the discrepancy. Now, using the minimum wage figure, determine how many total hours that family must work to be above the poverty line. Consider the following: Is only one member in that family capable of working? Is it a single-parent family? If so, will it require one person working more than one job to rise above the poverty line?

4. Taking the poverty-line calculation for a family of three, explore whether that level of income can actually provide for all basic needs. Determine the monthly minimum wage ($1,256), then estimate the amount a family of three would spend in a month for:

Meals away from home:
Health care:

Food (eating in): $295
Meals (away from home): $103
Clothing: $100
Shelter: $470
Utilities: $245
Healthcare: $110
Transportation: $481
Insurance/Savings: $56
Entertainment: $107

Source: Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2014-2015, based on an annual household income range of $10,000-$14,999

6. Keep adjusting the figures until the monthly budget limit is met. Having trouble making ends meet? Imagine how a family living in poverty feels.

Activity 2: “Myths, Facts and Action Against Poverty”

A number of resources contained within the Poverty USA Web site can help separate the facts from the myths about poverty in America today – and can help emphasize the need for personal action and service to this important cause.

You can begin by directing your group to take a tour through America’s forgotten state of poverty via the Tour Poverty USA presentation at This animated presentation explores the difficulties of providing for a family’s well being when you are living below the poverty line. Next, direct your group to the Poverty Quiz, also located at Here, group members can take a self-directed “True-False” quiz that helps illuminate current statistics on American poverty.

Both the Poverty USA Tour and Poverty Quiz can be used as the starting-points for group discussions about the facts – and myths – surrounding the issues of poverty in America today.

Activity 3: Stack of the Deck Game

Volunteers from the audience and three decks of cards help identify some of the root causes of poverty. Download the PDF (0.3 MB).

Activity 4: Take a Step Activity

Asks participants to step forward or backward in response to a series of questions in order to illustrate the “unequal playing field” that benefits some while making it more likely that others will be left behind. Download the PDF (0.3 MB).

Get Involved

Each of us has the power to help people find a way out of poverty. Here are some ways you can direct your group members to get involved in the community:

  • Donate time, talents, money or other resources to an organization that helps poor people to become independent, successful members of society and that address the underlying causes which keep people in the cycle of poverty, such as racism, lack of access to quality education, health care, childcare, etc.
  • Use the information gathered from the group activities to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper about the forgotten state of poverty in America, or ask a local reporter to cover the state of poverty in your community and what’s being done to help.
  • Get involved with a CCHD-funded organization near you.
  • Offer to mentor someone who is struggling to pull themselves out of poverty.
  • Invite your parish or school to participate in this year’s Multi-Media Youth Contest for youth in grades 7-12.
  • Become a member of a community-based, self-help project and work together with low-income people to break the cycle of poverty.

Learn More

Also see and Grades 6-12 resources.

Stories of Hope: Read online about projects funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development that are helping communities to break free of the cycle of poverty, not just for a day, but a lifetime.

Poverty Facts: A collection of facts about the state of poverty in America that illuminates understanding, including the Top Ten Poverty Rates of U.S. cities, counties and states.

Additional Resources

For exploring social teachings about the dignity of the human person.


Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story is the compelling dramatization of the early life of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day as a young journalist whose agonizing over failed love affairs leads her to reflect on her life and, in doing so, discovers God, then meets Peter Maurin and puts his ideas of social justice into practice during the Depression. (1996)

Romero is the powerful dramatization of the last three years in the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador whose condemnation of human rights abuses led to his assignation in 1980. (1989)

To learn more about fight against global poverty, visit Catholics Confront Global Poverty, a joint initiative of the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.