Mollie Orshansky

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Orshansky in 1967

Mollie Orshansky (January 9, 1915 – December 18, 2006) was an American economist and statistician who, in 1963–65, developed the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds, which are used in the United States as a measure of the income that a household must not exceed to be counted as poor.

Life and career[edit]

Miss Orshansky was born January 9, 1915, the third of six daughters of Samuel and Fannie Orshansky, Jewish immigrants who settled in the Bronx after leaving Ukraine. She attended Hunter College High School, and received an A.B. in mathematics and statistics from Hunter College in 1935. She continued graduate studies in economics and statistics at the Department of Agriculture Graduate School and American University.

In 1939 she became a research clerk with the Children's Bureau, working on biometric studies of child health, growth, and nutrition. In January 1942, as a statistician in the New York City Department of Health, she worked on a survey of the incidence of, and therapies for, pneumonia. In 1945, Orshansky moved to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she spent the next thirteen years a family economist, director of the Program Statistics Division, and a food economist.

In 1958, Orshansky joined the Social Security Administration as a social science research analyst in the Office of Research and Statistics. In this capacity she was responsible for analytical studies to measure income adequacy, family welfare and patterns of family income. In 1963 she developed the official measure of poverty used by the U.S. government (see Poverty in the United States). The basis of her idea was to use the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet as the basis for a cost-of-living estimate and to calculate a cost of living for families of different sizes and composition. In 1976, Orshansky received the Distinguished Service Award in recognition for her leadership in creating the first nationally accepted measures of income adequacy and applying them to public policy.

Late in her life, a legal battle ensued over her care following a hospitalization in the autumn of 2001. Orshansky was taken to New York according to her wishes, but a judge who had appointed a guardian tried to compel her return to Washington DC. The judge was overruled on appeal, and Orshansky died in Manhattan several years later.[1]

Popular culture[edit]

Orshansky's development of the Poverty Thresholds was a plot element in "The Indians in the Lobby," a third season episode of the United States television program The West Wing. In the story, the federal government was considering a reclassification of poverty forty years later that would have made use of a new formula to add four million additional citizens to the category. Orshansky, actually a native-born citizen of the United States, was misrepresented as an Eastern European immigrant who created a United States "cost of living formula ... based on life in Poland during the Cold War."[1]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Chan, Sewell (April 17, 2007). "Mollie Orshansky, Statistician, Dies at 91". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-04.