As Cambridge dictionary clarifies, the term "the breadline" is a British one that means:

the breadline

The level of income someone has when they are very poor, with only just enough money to buy food, pay their rent, etc. (My take: the minimum income level that below that is called poverty):

  • They are living under the breadline.

I was wondering if it does not work in American, what would be its American English equivalent?

Also, please let me know if my take on the meaning of the term is right.

  • Speaking from a UK perspective, you are correct. It's a common phrase. Poverty line is also heard.
    – legatrix
    Dec 15 '20 at 23:42
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    Well, I think poverty line sounds more technical---you could also use the term living wage if you want to be more technical/bureaucratic. I think they're all about equally comon.
    – legatrix
    Dec 16 '20 at 0:24
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    Btw, (also from the UK) the usual expression is 'on the breadline', not 'under the breadline'. Saying 'They are living on the living wage' means someone in the family or group is earning precisely £9.50 an hour (or £10.85 if they're in London). Dec 16 '20 at 2:30
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    @Eddie Kal: Doesn't the chart show I'm right to say "the usual expression is on the breadline, not under it"? Certainly it shows you're right in saying your other two expressions get used too. A bit! :-) Dec 16 '20 at 20:13
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    @OldBrixtonian You are right. I never doubted the correctness of your comment. In the interest of accuracy I wanted to give some supplemental information, but I agree with your comment. I came to this post when reviewing a new answer under this question. That answer states "[the] correct phrases are". That kind of certitude, without qualification (e.g. BrE, frequency), is misleading. I should've posted my comment under that answer.
    – Eddie Kal
    Dec 16 '20 at 21:11

The most used phrases are:

  • on the breadline
  • below the poverty line

However, you can see, that in American English it's not common to use the first one, according to Ngram Viewer statistics.

Ngram Viewer is showing comparison between usage of phrases

Also you can find synonyms for these phrases here.


Breadline as a term related to poverty is also familiar to Americans, but not in the phrase on the breadline.

The earliest attestation in the OED to the bread line representing an income level supporting only basic subsistence is actually from a U.S. source, a labor statistician named Matthew Simpelaar writing in 1888. This meaning, however, has been overwhelmingly supplanted by a contemporaneous definition, of a queue one stands in to receive free bread. Rather than living on the breadline or living below the breadline, people receiving free food from a charity are literally standing in breadlines (ironically, outside what are colloquially known as soup kitchens). The phrase is strongly associated with the Great Depression and the era's evocative photos of breadlines.

The minimum income level deemed adequate for basic living standards is most commonly called the poverty line, a colloquialism popularized during the expansion of welfare programs in the 1960s which were based on definitions developed by statistician Mollie Orshansky. Someone living at or on the poverty line is someone barely getting by; someone living below the poverty line is impoverished and cannot maintain an adequate standard of living. Few Americans outside of those in public policy could guess accurately as to what the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds actually are, but as they are increasingly criticized as out-of-date, that may be just as well.

More casual phrases one may encounter are living hand-to-mouth or living paycheck-to-paycheck. Both indicate a situation where one is barely (if at all) meeting current spending demands, without the ability to plan for the future, but hand-to-mouth carries an image of dire poverty—of being so hungry you devour a morsel of food as soon as it is handed to you—whereas the latter is much broader, and can be applied to middle-class or upper-class people who have a comfortable standard of living but are unable or unwilling to save money for emergencies.


We have the similar-sounding expression "below the poverty line" in American English, but this is often used with the specific technical meaning that somebody's income is below a certain amount defined by the government. The phrase is sometimes used informally to mean that somebody is poor in a general sense, but this usage can be confusing given the formal definition.

A couple expressions we might use to suggest that somebody is making just enough money to cover basic expenses are:

They are living paycheck to paycheck.

They are just barely getting by.

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