Much has been said over the past year about the number of children in the U.S. living in poverty – a number that has been cited as 20.7 percent, 14.7 million, or more than 1 in 5 of all children across the country.

Somewhat less attention has been paid to how these figures were derived. As discussed in a previous post, the current federal poverty threshold is based on a formula created in the 1960s that essentially multiplies the amount of a family’s food budget by three. In 2009, this meant that the poverty threshold for a single parent with one child was set at $14,787.

In the years since the inception of this formula, critics on both the left and the right have argued that the measurement of ‘before-tax cash-only’ income does not accurately reflect the reality of low-income families’ resources – both in terms of how to account for government assistance in areas such as nutrition or housing, as well as defining how much a family with children really needs in order to get by. Current work in this field is now re-defining the poverty threshold in terms of what it truly means for a family to achieve basic economic security. And the federal government is moving forward as well, most notably with the announcement by President Obama last year with the intended release of a modernized supplemental poverty measure in fall 2011.

Earlier this week saw the Census Bureau release of alternative income and poverty estimates for 2009 – a preview of the type of new information that will become routinely available later this year. The alternative estimates were derived from a variety of calculations, each differing in respect to the definition of what qualifies as an income source (cash only versus noncash government assistance), the subtraction of fixed costs such as transport or taxes, or cost-of-living adjustments for different areas of the country.

Some of the alternative calculations result in a higher poverty threshold – and as a result, the Census Bureau found that up to 53 million Americans, or 17.3 percent, may have been living in poverty in 2009 (as compared to the official figure of 44 million Americans, or 14.3 percent). Conversely, some calculations resulted in a lower threshold and found that perhaps 39 million Americans, or 12.8 percent, lived in poverty in 2009. The figures are entirely dependent upon what gets counted.

In the end, whichever version of a modernized poverty measure is accepted should be a formula that gets as close as possible to a real valuation of family’s resources, capturing the realities of what comprises a family’s income and what is takes to cover a family’s basic needs. If we are going to successfully help families achieve economic security, we need to know exactly what comprises true security and how many families are currently without it. There is clearly much work to be done regardless of whether Americans in poverty number 39 million, 53 million, or somewhere in between – but it helps to know what we are working towards.

For More Information on the Census Bureau and Poverty Measurement: