The thresholds themselves also have come under scrutiny from both the left and the right, with policymakers on both sides arguing they are a poor measure of how many people in this country are actually poor.
The Gallup survey of about 1,000 Americans, which was released last week, asked Americans to name the smallest amount of money a family of four would need to make each year to get by in their own community. The data was collected in mid-April.
They found that people with higher incomes said a family of four would need a higher amount, on average, than those who have lower incomes. People who lived in the suburbs also named a higher amount, on average, than those who are living in cities or rural areas.
Rank said it makes sense that the amount of money you think is needed to cover basic expenses would vary depending on where you live. The cost of living in the rural Midwest is likely much lower than in the metropolitan East, for example.
He also noted that people's expectations for how much money they need in order to cover what they consider basic needs tends to go up as they get wealthier.
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"What they're considering necessary is going to vary between somebody who's earning $20,000 versus somebody who's earning $200,000," he said.
In addition, he noted, no matter how much money people make, they tend to think that they could use a little more to feel truly comfortable.
"They'll always say, 'If I just had a little bit more to get by on,'" he said.
The median – or midpoint – of household income for all households in the United States, regardless of size, was $50,054 in 2011, according to the latest government data available. The median – or midpoint – of the responses to the Gallup poll question about the family of four specifically also was $50,000.
— By Allison Linn