A traditional list of immediate "basic needs" is food (including water), shelter, and clothing. Many modern lists emphasize the minimum level of consumption of 'basic needs' of not just food, water, and shelter, but also sanitation, education, and healthcare. Different agencies use different lists.
Related approaches, taking their cue from the work of Amartya Sen, focus on 'capabilities' rather than consumption.
In the development discourse, the basic needs model focuses on the measurement of what is believed to be an eradicable level of poverty. Development programs following the basic needs approach do not invest in economically productive activities that will help a society carry its own weight in the future, rather it focuses on allowing the society to consume just enough to rise above the poverty line and meet its basic needs. These programs focus more on subsistence than fairness. Nevertheless, in terms of "measurement", the basic needs or absolute approach is important. The 1995 world summit on social development in Copenhagen had, as one of its principal declarations that all nations of the world should develop measures of both absolute and relative poverty and should gear national policies to "eradicate absolute poverty by a target date specified by each country in its national context."
Professor Chris Sarlo, an economist at Nipissing University in North Bay, Canada and a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute, uses Statistics Canada's socio-economic databases, particularly the Survey of Household Spending to determine the cost of a list of household necessities. The list includes food, shelter, clothing, health care, personal care, essential furnishings, transportation and communication, laundry, home insurance, and miscellaneous; it assumes that education is provided freely to all residents of Canada. This is calculated for various communities across Canada and adjusted for family size. With this information, he determines the proportion of Canadian households that have insufficient income to afford those necessities. Since the early 1970s, the poverty rate has declined from about 12% of Canadian households to about 5%.
Minimum expenses vary by region. For housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and other necessary expenses, plus net taxes, a family in middle-class Warren County in northwestern Pennsylvania of one adult and two children (one preschooler, one school-aged) needed a minimum income of $30,269 to pay its own way in 2006. Child care is the largest expense in this budget, followed by housing, taxes, and food. The same family, living in the wealthy Seattle region of Washington would need to earn $48,269 to be self-sufficient. These figures contrast sharply with the FPL for that year, which was just $16,600 for any three-person household.