SOUTH PORTLAND – Two reports came out last month saying what seem to be contradictory things about the economic welfare of older Americans.

New census calculations, which provide a more realistic picture of who is in poverty, say a record number of Americans (49.1 million) are now poor and that the share of Americans age 65-plus living in poverty is nearly double what the official poverty measure shows.

Then, a Pew Research Center study was discussed in an article in the Nov. 6 Maine Sunday Telegram.

The article said that households headed by someone 65 and older had a net worth much greater than households headed by someone under 35.

The “net worth” numbers for seniors are not as rosy as they first seem.

As the Pew report acknowledges, one would expect seniors to have accumulated more net worth over their lifetimes. And the overwhelming driver of the increase in older Americans’ net worth — compared to older Americans in the mid-1980s — is their home equity.

Both young and older Americans have suffered a decline in home equity in recent years, but many older Americans had built up enough equity over the years that they managed to hold on to some of it even after the housing bust.

If it weren’t for home equity, the elders’ net worth would actually “have been 33 percent lower than in 1984, instead of 42 percent higher,” according to the Pew report. In fact, the report shows that median net worth of elders excluding home equity was a modest $25,209 in 2009.

And, of course, homes are not liquid assets. You can’t eat a house that you can’t sell.

There is another flaw in the Pew study. As Joshua Holland notes in his Nov. 7 AlterNet article, “back in the 1980s, traditional, employer-managed pensions were the primary means of saving for retirement in the United States, but during the intervening years there was a huge shift toward 401(k)s (and similar accounts), which now represent over 80 percent of private retirement savings.

Traditional pensions weren’t counted as part of a household’s net worth, but 401(k)s are.

So comparing the wealth of older households that didn’t include their nest-eggs in 1984 to those in 2009 which count the money people have socked away as part of their net worth is like comparing apples to oranges.”

The recession has made sure that people of all ages are suffering. Older Americans are a growing part of that sad story.

Many older adults in this country have seen their savings erode along with their dreams for retirement. Depending on their age and health, older workers may not have time to make up for a savings shortfall.

The average Social Security check in Maine is less than $1,000 a month, and more than 22 percent of those in the program rely on those checks for at least 90 percent of their income.

Hunger among older Americans has spiked nearly 80 percent since 2001.

Sadly, Maine is at or near the top in terms of food insecurity for all the New England states and, in many cases, the Northeast region as a whole.

That hardly paints a picture of older Americans living the high life.

Certainly, the economic turmoil of the last several years has taken its toll on Americans of all ages.

The numbers in the Pew report do reflect the critical importance of planning for retirement security and strengthening Medicare and Social Security to ensure health coverage and at least a modest income for American retirees.

Let’s continue to strive for nonpartisan solutions that make sense for all generations.

Nancy Kelleher is Maine state director of the AARP.