This Day in Jewish History / The Woman Who Defined 'Poor' Is Born

Mollie Orshansky, a statistician and economist, built a model for measuring poverty adopted by the U.S. government in the mid-1960s, and still used today.

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The day President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
The day President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964Credit: Wikicommons

January 9, 1915, is the birthday Mollie Orshansky, a statistician and economist who, although she was shunted into “women’s work,” nevertheless built a model for measuring poverty that was adopted by the U.S. government in the mid-1960s and, for better or worse, is still used to determine the poverty threshold in the United States.

Mollie OrshanskyCredit: Wikicommons

Mollie Orshansky was born in the Bronx borough of New York, the third of six daughters born to Samuel and Fannie Orshansky, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. Samuel was a plumber and ironworker, but was often out of work and the family was often in need. Years later, Mollie was to say, “If I write about the poor, I don’t need a good imagination — I have a good memory.”

Mollie attended Hunter College High School and later, as a scholarship student, Hunter College, from which she received a B.A. in math and statistics in 1935. She followed that with graduate work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School and at American University, both in Washington, D.C.

From 1939 until her retirement, in 1982, Orshansky worked for federal agencies, with the exception of a brief period in the 1940s, when she was employed by the New York City Department of Health.

In its obituary for Orshansky, The New York Times quoted the book “Poverty Knowledge,” by Alice O’Connor, which considered the role played by women at federal agencies in the years following World War II.

It was a time, wrote O’Connor, “when university jobs were largely closed off to them, although within government they were often clustered in research bureaus focusing on such traditional ‘women’s’ concerns as social welfare, female labor force participation, families and children, and home economics. That experience as a career government statistician was what gave Orshansky the wholly unexpected designation as author of the government’s official poverty line.”

Using knowledge about nutrition she had acquired at the Agriculture Department, Orshansky calculated the cost of the minimum daily quantity of food needed by an individual or family. Then, going on an USDA estimation that the average family spent one-third of its income on food, she multiplied these amounts by three to come up with over 100 “threshold” incomes, varying based on location and family size, under which a family could be considered to be impoverished.

Orshansky wrote two seminal papers for the bulletin of the Social Security Administration, where she began working in 1958. The first of these, “Children of the Poor,” from 1963, “did for Washington bureaucrats what Michael Harrington’s ‘The Other America’ did for the broad reading public” about the far-flung nature of poverty in the United States, wrote Deborah Stone in The American Prospect in 2001.

‘Children of the poor’

Three years later, in “Counting the Poor: Another Look at the Poverty Profile,” Orshansky applied the methods she had used to evaluate the rate of poverty among children to the entire American population.

Orshansky, wrote Stone, “had the economist’s capacity to give quasi-scientific backing to political will.” Indeed, in January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced his War on Poverty, and the Office of Economic Opportunity then being established adopted Orshansky’s poverty “thresholds” for its own guidelines.

Mollie Orshansky had not intended for her analytical tools to be used directly to determine eligibility for federal assistance — and she certainly didn’t expect those same tools to be in use 50 years later, which they are, with only changes in cost-of-living being factored in.

“If someone has a better approach, fine,” she told an interviewer in 1999. “I was working with what I had and with what I knew.”

But her tools did help a generation of policy makers and the public itself picture poverty in a concrete way, and develop a sense of just how widespread it was in the world’s most affluent and powerful country.

Orshansky, who never married and did not have children, retired in 1982. In 2001, she moved to New York to live with a niece, though only after a court in Washington, D.C., overruled an official there who had tried to stop the move, on the grounds that the family was not qualified to care for her.

She died in New York, on December 18, 2006, at age 91.