Reading between the line

The tragic legacy of ‘Ms. Poverty,’ unlikely creator of the federal poverty line

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Nearly 50 years ago, a 48-year-old statistician named Mollie Orshansky, later referred to as a “ubiquitous footnote” in the history of counting the poor, was assigned by the Social Security Administration to research how poverty affected children. Orshansky, a lifelong liberal who was raised in the South Bronx by Ukrainian parents, completed the task in two years. She was horrified to find that half the families she surveyed lived on less than what her agency had paid to have a single data set arranged. “So I determined I was going to get my $2,500 worth,” she later said.

The resulting document, “Children of the Poor,” published in 1964, is sensitive and clear-eyed, a self-conscious stab at counting poverty at a time when no hard metrics existed. Using a “crude criterion of income adequacy” based on the idea that a household spends one-third of its income on groceries, Orshansky found the children of black Americans or those living in single-parent households statistically more likely to be impoverished.

“It would be one thing if poverty hit at random,” she wrote. “It is another thing to realize that some seem destined to poverty almost by birth—by their color or by the economic status or occupation of their parents.”

The metrics she created for the study were intended primarily as a research tool, a way to statistically measure which populations were more likely to be invisible to the administration in which she worked; instead, they became the basis of the much-maligned federal poverty line. And so Orshansky—sometimes referred to as “Ms. Poverty”—would spend much of the rest of her life trying and failing to further refine her “crude criterion,” answering for the legacy of a work that was quickly taken out of her hands.

“It would be one thing if poverty hit at random. It is another thing to realize that some seem destined to poverty almost by birth—by their color or by the economic status or occupation of their parents.”

- Mollie Orshansky

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the official American poverty rate dropped last year for the first time since 1999, by a margin of 1.2%—meaning 43.1 million people in the country live below it. For a single person living alone, that means subsisting on $12,000 or less a year. (Not that one needs much expansion on just how little that is, but in the state of California, the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment comes out to about $16,200 a year.) In a recent study from a conservative think tank, Americans weighed in on what a family of four’s highest income should be if they are to be considered officially poor. The average response was $32,293; census guidelines place that yearly take-home closer to $25,000.

The basic math, essentially unchanged since the ‘60s, regularly draws criticism from both sides of the aisle. Conservatives hate that it doesn’t take non-cash benefits like food stamps into account. Liberals point to the insanity of a single high-water mark regardless of whether you live in New Orleans or Tulsa or the Bay. The measurement is so faulty, in fact, that since 2011 the Census Bureau itself has published two reports a year: one based on the official index, another on a supplemental version created by the Obama administration.

The unlikely architect of the original poverty line likely could have seen these heated debates coming. From the time her “Children of the Poor” paper started gaining traction, she made several attempts to amend its basis.

mollieorshansky0676Social Security Administration History Archives

“If I write about the poor, I don’t need a good imagination—I have a good memory,” Orshansky once said. She was one of the first women in her neighborhood to go to high school. As an alum of Hunter College, at the time a school for gifted girls, she committed most of her life to civil service. Described by historian Alice O’Conner in her book Poverty Knowledge as “one of the respected but mostly invisible cadre of women research professionals based at the SSA and other government agencies during the postwar years,” she began work with the federal children’s bureau in 1939 and worked her way through the departments of health and agriculture before landing at the SSA, where she would work for more than two decades.

Women like Orshansky, writes O’Connor, “found job opportunities in federal government and other ‘applied’ endeavors 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.”

“The best that can be said of the measure, is that at a time when it seemed useful, it was there.”

- Mollie Orshansky

Those 13 years Orshansky spent in the agriculture department had a colossal effect on who would be counted as poor for the next several decades. During the statistician’s tenure as a “family economist,” she worked with household food consumption surveys, laying out plans for how much a family could spend to maintain a “nutritionally adequate” lifestyle, down to how many potatoes and how much meat it could afford. In her 1963 paper, she drew on the department’s thrifty food plan,” the lowest-cost estimate, multiplied by three, to calculate how much a family needed to earn to survive—and even then, pointed out that the food plans she used drew on data collected nearly 10 years prior.

But six months after her paper was published, Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty, and Orshansky’s report landed on the president’s desk as part of a briefing. Eager for metrics to prove its success, the administration adopted the “Orshansky index” in its newly formed Office for Economic Opportunity as the official measurement. Beginning almost immediately, Orshansky and others in the SSA would argue for, at the very least, updating the index with more recent nutritional data, if not taking another look at the poverty line’s underlying assumptions. But they were foiled, first by other government agencies taking charge of the “poverty issue,” then by the Nixon administration, which immediately upon taking office issued a memo making the Orshansky poverty line the official federal count.

“No president wants to be the person who redefines poverty and poverty goes up on their watch.”

- Rebecca Blank

In a 1976 report to Congress, Orshansky, along with others at the SSA, recommended a number of changes. In an “Orshansky Update” the statistician herself recommended reconsidering which food plans were considered “adequate,” as well as the appropriateness of counting nutrition as a third of one’s income. By way of example, she wrote, if groceries comprised of even one-fifth instead, it would “more than double the official poverty thresholds and would include about one-third of the population as poor.” But despite attempts that year, and in others, to bring into question the math that determines who’s poor, the overhaul never happened. As Rebecca Blank, the former commerce secretary who led the push for the supplemental poverty measure first deployed in 2011, told NPR, the poverty line became a “very politically substantive measure” once it was drawn. “No president wants to be the person who redefines poverty and poverty goes up on their watch.”

Orshansky died a few years ago at 91 but, as the poverty metric she helped create fell out of favor, became the subject of commentary from tasks forces and think tanks. In 1995, the National Academy of Sciences, she continued to begrudgingly answer for the research tool she created. “If someone has a better approach, fine,” she told an interviewer in 1999. “I was working with what I had and what I knew.”

Or, more recently, as was quoted in her 2007 New York Times obituary: “The best that can be said of the measure, is that at a time when it seemed useful, it was there.”

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