Mollie Orshansky: Inventor of the Poverty Line While working for the federal government, Mollie Orshansky came up with the government's official definition of the poverty line. Orshansky — an economist and statistician — died in December, her family announced this week. She was 91.
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Mollie Orshansky: Inventor of the Poverty Line

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Mollie Orshansky: Inventor of the Poverty Line

Mollie Orshansky: Inventor of the Poverty Line

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Mollie Orshansky died in December, her family announced this week. She was 91 years old. Ms. Orshansky was an economist and a statistician who was famous for inventing what is now known as the poverty line - the number that has been used for decades as a baseline for federal assistance to the poor. The poverty line was Ms. Orshansky's best-known achievement, whether she liked it or not, and she didn't like it.

Here she is speaking about it in an interview with NPR in 2001.

(Soundbite of archived NPR recording

Ms. MOLLIE ORSHANSKY (Economist): They haven't changed this in all the time since it was mandated by Congress. But I didn't ask anybody to do it. Anyone who thinks that we need to change it is perfectly right. I told them that then, but they didn't do it.

WERTHEIMER: Alice O'Connor is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of "Poverty Knowledge," our history of poverty research. She joins us from our bureau in New York. Thank you very much for being with us.

Dr. ALICE O'CONNOR (Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara): Good to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, could you just give us a little bit of background here? Why did Mollie Orshansky develop a yardstick for measuring poverty?

Dr. O'CONNOR: Sure. Mollie Orshansky was a lifelong civil servant, who worked in a number of different government agencies and government bureaus that measured various dimensions of economic well-being. She started to do work about poverty among single-mother families in particular.

And as she's doing this work, she felt that there were not adequate measures of poverty. Fast forward to 1964 when the then President Lyndon B. Johnson is about to declare war on poverty, with a goal of ending poverty in the United States, still though we had no official way of measuring poverty. And it's to Mollie Orshansky's work that they turned.

WERTHEIMER: Can you give us a shorthand diversion of what her formula was, how she decided where the poverty line is?

Dr. O'CONNOR: She had in her work at the Department of Agriculture then working on all these family food budgets, you know, what's that least amount of money essentially that you can spend in order to get a nutritionally adequate diet. So she took those measures, and then she took data that indicated that most families spent about one-third of their income to feed their families.

WERTHEIMER: So that sounds like you could just take that food plan, multiply it by three, and you'd have the most basic amount of money that you need to live.

Dr. O'CONNOR: That's exactly right. And in fact, she underscored the fact that this is a minimal estimate of what people need to get by.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you know, one of the things that immediately leaps out is that it doesn't seem to take into account housing.

Dr. O'CONNOR: It doesn't take into account housing. It doesn't take into account health care costs. It doesn't take into account childcare costs, which, of course, have become much more important, especially as more and more women have been entering the labor force.

WERTHEIMER: Are there better measurements for poverty, and if there are, why doesn't the government use them?

Dr. O'CONNOR: There are a wide range of ways of measuring poverty. And many, many programs already acknowledged the inadequacy of the poverty line.

WERTHEIMER: I've seen lots of laws passed in Congress where they talked about multiples of the poverty line - double the poverty line, triple the poverty line.

Dr. O'CONNOR: All sorts of programs have all sorts of different levels of eligibility. But so many of this goes at some fraction above the poverty line. That in and out itself seems to be an acknowledgment of the inadequacy of this measure.

WERTHEIMER: Alice O'Connor is associate professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She was remembering the work of Mollie Orshansky whose heart gave out in December after 91 years. Dr. O'Connor, thank you very much.

Dr. O'CONNOR: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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