• November 5, 2023

Federal Poverty Guidelines and Eligibility for Programs

HHS Poverty Guidelines 2019

Each year, HHS updates the poverty guidelines. These are annual income levels, based on family size, used as an eligibility criterion by many programs.

These include Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”), National School Lunch Program, and some parts of Medicaid. Major means-tested programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit do not use the HHS poverty guidelines.

What are the guidelines?

The guidelines are an important measure of income for many purposes, including determining eligibility for certain programs and benefits. For example, people with incomes below the 2023 FPL are eligible for savings on Marketplace health insurance plans and for Medicaid and CHIP coverage. The guidelines (or percentage multiples of the guidelines — for instance, 125 percent or 185 percent of the guidelines) also are used as a criterion in calculating eligibility for some major means-tested programs, such as Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the National School Lunch Program.

State and local governments, private companies (including utilities and telephone companies), and some charitable agencies also use the guidelines in setting eligibility for their services to low-income persons. This notice updates the poverty guidelines to account for a 2.4 percent increase in prices measured by the Consumer Price Index between calendar years 2017 and 2018. These updated guidelines are effective January 13, 2021, unless an office administering a program that uses them specifies a different effective date.

How do they work?

Many federal programs use the poverty guidelines to determine eligibility for benefits such as food assistance, child care, health insurance, and help paying home heating costs. The eligibility levels for those programs vary widely, but they all base their calculations on the same official annual poverty thresholds published by the United States Census Bureau and updated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reflect changes in the cost of living.

The guidelines are usually effective as soon as they’re published in the Federal Register each year, which is typically in late January, although some programs make them effective at a later date, as specified in their authorizing legislation or program regulations. Programs that use the guidelines in determining eligibility include Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Individuals who have incomes at or below 125% of the FPG may be eligible for certain Medicaid coverage. However, questions about how specific programs apply the guidelines should be directed to the relevant program administrators.

What are the eligibility levels?

The HHS poverty guidelines are used by many Federal programs as an eligibility criterion. These include Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps), the National School Lunch Program, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. They are also used by some State and local programs, and by private companies that offer services to low-income households. Most major means-tested programs, however, do not use the poverty guidelines in determining eligibility.

Questions about what income is counted for purposes of a particular program should be directed to the office or organization that administers the program. Different programs may count differently before-tax or after-tax income, and some may use a percentage multiple of the HHS poverty guidelines to determine eligibility.

The poverty guidelines are issued in late January each year, and are adjusted for price changes over the previous calendar year using the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). Most programs that use the guidelines make them effective on the date of publication unless they specify a later date in their authorizing legislation or program regulations.

How do I find out if I qualify?

You may be able to get certain programs that help pay for health insurance by having income at or below the poverty guidelines. Each program, though, sets its own eligibility rules and definitions of what counts as income. For example, some programs use after-tax income, while others consider gross or net income. It is best to contact the specific office that administers the program in question.

The HHS poverty guidelines are a simplification of the thresholds set with the official poverty measure, and they are used as an eligibility criterion by many federal agencies for means-tested programs such as Medicaid, premium tax credits, and more. The guidelines may also be used as a reference for the calculation of local income limits (e.g., for housing programs in San Francisco).

You can find more information on the HHS poverty guidelines at their website. Poverty levels for each year since 1982 are available here. (These numbers reflect prices through calendar year 2018.) You can find more information on how the HHS poverty guidelines are calculated here.

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