Monday, April 23, 2007

Developer of the poverty guidelines dies

Mollie Orshansky, a lifelong liberal Democrat, expressed sympathy with the criticisms of the poverty line. “The best that can be said of the measure,” she once wrote, “is that at a time when it seemed useful, it was there.”

Mollie Orshansky, a statistician who in the 1960s developed the federal poverty line, a measurement that shaped decades of social policy and welfare programs, has died at 91.

Her research was put to a use that she herself had never intended. The federal poverty guideline — $20,000 for a family of four in 2006 — has long been criticized as understating the true extent of poverty. It also seems outdated. Food today makes up a much smaller proportion of household expenses than it did in the 1960s; the costs of housing, transportation, child care and health care have risen far more sharply.

In 1995, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences urged several changes in calculating poverty, but no major changes have occurred, in part because they would have the politically unpopular effect of increasing the poverty rate.

Read her obituary in The New York Times.


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