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Poverty Lines and Measures of Income Inadequacy in the United States Since 1870: Collecting and Using a Little-Known Body of Historical Material

by Gordon M. Fisher

A paper presented October 17, 1997,
at the 22nd Meeting of the Social Science History Association
Washington, D.C.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not represent the position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Writing Three Major Historical Papers About U.S. Poverty Lines

I am a former employee of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)  the lead agency of the War on Poverty  who has worked at what is now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) since 1973. Since 1982, I have been responsible for issuing the annual update of the poverty guidelines(1) (the administrative version of the federal poverty measure, used in determining eligibility for certain federal and non-federal programs) and responding to public inquiries relating to them. I responded to 1312 such inquiries in 1996.

While the poverty guidelines are issued by HHS, the other version of the poverty measure  the poverty thresholds  are issued nowadays by the Census Bureau. The poverty thresholds are the original version of the poverty measure; they are used for calculating the number of persons in poverty. In an ideally tidy world, questions about how the poverty thresholds were developed might be directed only to the Census Bureau. In the real world, however, many people have no reason to be aware of the rather obscure distinction between poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines; accordingly, the question "How was the poverty line developed?" is often directed to me as well as to Census Bureau personnel. (Since the poverty thresholds were originally developed by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration (SSA), this question is directed to SSA personnel as well.)

In this situation, I have become quite accustomed to explaining to people how the poverty thresholds were developed. However, since some of these inquirers would ask for something in writing in addition to a verbal explanation, I became aware during the 1980's that there was no entirely satisfactory secondary account of the development and subsequent history of the thresholds.(2) Published secondary accounts of the development of the thresholds did exist, but a number of them had either failed to consult published primary sources with sufficient care or had failed to consult such sources altogether, resulting in errors and inaccuracies.

Among the published primary sources that persons interested in this subject could consult were, of course, Mollie Orshansky's published articles.(3) However, I became aware that there were also a number of unpublished primary sources  internal memoranda, records of federal interagency committees in the 1960's and 1970's that few people even inside government knew about, and unpublished papers by Orshansky  that most interested persons could not consult. Fortunately for the historical record, various federal employees had preserved a number of these items in old files. But no one was actively conserving and gathering all of this material into a single collection. As time went on, much of this historical record was in danger of being lost. Preservation of the historical record was important both for its own sake and because specific details of the development of the thresholds had significant implications for possible changes in poverty/income definitions. (As a federal employee dealing with poverty issues since the late 1960's, I had been exposed to ways of viewing poverty definition issues that did not always make their way into the academic literature.)

Since my office worked with the poverty guidelines, not the poverty thresholds, my official responsibilities during the mid-1980's did not include collecting and preserving historical material about the development and subsequent history of the poverty thresholds. However, as a former OEO employee, I felt strongly that this work of historical preservation ought to be done, so in 1987 I began doing it. Several colleagues graciously let me copy material from their files. I also collected copies of numerous published and unpublished papers and Congressional testimony by Mollie Orshansky. And I learned much from a number of conversations with Orshansky about her work on the poverty thresholds. Using all these primary sources, I prepared several drafts of a short paper on the development and history of the poverty thresholds. In 1992, the editorial staff of the Social Security Bulletin asked me to write an article on the origin of the poverty thresholds. I took advantage of this opportunity by writing a lengthy unpublished paper(4) (75 pages) on the development and history of the thresholds in order to get down on paper as much of the historical material as possible. (This work was done on my own time.) This unpublished paper was then condensed into a 12-page article for the Bulletin.(5)

While researching the early history of the Orshansky poverty thresholds, I encountered some references to earlier, unofficial U.S. poverty lines  for instance, Robert Hunter's 1904 poverty line of $460 per year for an "average family" of five persons in the industrial states of the North, or the $2,000 low-income line for nonfarm families of all sizes set in 1949 by the Subcommittee on Low-Income Families of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Economic Report [subsequently renamed the Joint Economic Committee].(6) I became interested in these pre-1965 unofficial poverty lines, and began doing historical research on this subject as well. (I was unable to find any single complete published account on this subject.) In 1993, I wrote a 75-page paper(7) (with a 7-page summary) on unofficial poverty lines and minimum subsistence budgets in the U.S. between 1904 and 1965 (also including a few scattered minimum income figures going back as far as the 1870's). The paper also mentioned some standard budgets(8) that were prepared to represent standards of living higher than poverty or minimum subsistence. In the introduction to this paper, I commented that I believe the "ancient history" of 1904-1965 American poverty lines is relevant to poverty definition and measurement today because I look at the drawing of poverty lines as a social process  not merely a technical economic exercise.

In the course of my research on both the current poverty thresholds and pre-1965 poverty lines, I also became increasingly aware of a significant but (presently) little-known phenomenon known as the income elasticity of the poverty line  that successive unofficial poverty lines tend to rise in real terms over time as the real income of the general population increases. I found extensive evidence for this phenomenon in the historical material that I had gathered on U.S. poverty lines. I also gathered a good deal of evidence on the occurrence of this phenomenon in Britain, Canada, and Australia. In 1994 and 1995, I compiled all of this evidence into a 78-page paper(9) (with a 9-page summary). The substance and the utilization of this evidence on the income elasticity of the poverty line will be further discussed below.

I believe that my papers on the current poverty thresholds, on pre-1965 U.S. poverty lines, and on the income elasticity of the poverty line cover their respective areas more thoroughly and in greater detail than previous work. However, even after partial revisions of the first two papers in recent months, I still hope to revise and expand them further in future years, since there is a good deal of historical material (particularly in the area of pre-1965 poverty lines) that time has not yet permitted me to incorporate into these papers.

Indeed, the body of historical material that I have identified provides opportunities for more research projects and papers than any one person could complete. To cite just a few possible examples: Someone could do a history of standard budgets for single women (used in determining minimum wages for women working in the paid labor force). Someone could do a review of standard budgets for farm families. Someone interested in the sociology of professions could do a study of the change during the 1960's in the identity of the groups that develop and/or study poverty lines in the U.S. (see pp. 15-16 below); perhaps this study could be couched in terms of how society answers the question "Who are the experts?" on a particular subject. Someone interested in the interaction between ideas and social institutions could do a study of the social context of origin and the social consequences of the belief or axiom (in one profession) that "Poverty lines are arbitrary; it doesn't matter at what level you set them."

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The Body of Historical Material Used to Write the Three Historical Papers

The current poverty thresholds were developed by a federal government employee (Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration); they were adopted as the federal government's measure of poverty on a quasi-official basis in 1965 and on an official basis in 1969. By contrast, pre-1965 poverty lines in the U.S. were unofficial, never having been adopted by the federal government for official or formal use. In most cases, they were prepared by people who were not federal government employees. Accordingly, the nature of the historical material on the current poverty thresholds differs to a significant degree from that on pre-1965 poverty lines.

Historical Sources on the Current Poverty Thresholds

One of the major sources for the history of the current poverty thresholds was, of course, published articles and papers and unpublished papers by Mollie Orshansky, who developed the thresholds. Besides using the "standard" articles by Orshansky in such journals as the Social Security Bulletin and the Monthly Labor Review (cf. footnote 3), I also spent time and effort tracking down more obscure published papers of hers in such sources as Nutrition Committee News (March-April 1957) and Sixth Biennial Workshop on Public Welfare Research and Statistics[:] Proceedings[  ]July 18-22, 1966. I also tracked down what I believe to be every Congressional hearing (eleven of them) in which Orshansky testified before or submitted a statement to Congress; Congressional testimony by Orshansky has almost never been cited in accounts of how the poverty thresholds were developed.(10) In addition, I found several newspaper/periodical interviews of Orshansky. I also was able to secure copies of a number of unpublished memoranda and papers by Orshansky, both from her and from others. And I have been very fortunate in having had a number of conversations with Orshansky herself about her work on the poverty thresholds; these conversations gave me both new information and insights for better understanding existing documents.

Besides material by Orshansky, another major source for the history of the current poverty thresholds was internal government memoranda. I was able to find internal Social Security Administration memoranda from the 1960's, and meeting records of various federal interagency committees on the poverty thresholds during 1968-1969, 1971-1972, 1973, and 1979-1980. As I indicated above, I secured copies of a number of memoranda and documents from federal employees.(11) I secured copies of other documents from the [Ida] Merriam Collection of Social Security Papers now located in the Gelman Library of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.(12)

Other sources for the history of the current thresholds included a relatively small number of published reports and books  e.g., reports in Series P-60 of the Census Bureau's Current Population Reports, The Measure of Poverty (see footnote 2), and some papers in Proceedings of the American Statistical Association  as well as some newspaper stories.

Historical Sources on Pre-1965 Poverty Lines and Budgets

Sources for the history of pre-1965 poverty lines and budgets were primarily published  books, reports, pamphlets, articles in periodicals both general and specialized, and some newspaper stories. (Besides items actually presenting poverty lines or subsistence budgets, I gathered a number of other items; some of these showed which poverty lines or budgets were being cited by other analysts, while other items did not contain dollar figures but did help illuminate the various social contexts in which different poverty lines and budgets had been developed.) For the pre-1965 history, my sources included almost no unpublished government memoranda  not surprisingly, since most of the poverty lines and subsistence budgets involved were not developed by federal government employees. However, I did use some published federal government reports  not only for a handful of poverty lines and budgets, but also to trace some of the history of the Agriculture Department's food plans, which played a significant role in the development not only of Orshansky's poverty thresholds but also of a pair of budgets published by the Works Progress Administration in 1937.

I found a fair number of historical sources in the HHS Departmental Library(13) before it was abolished in February 1992. I am sure that I would have been able to find even more sources if I had begun my research before October 1985, when the HHS Library was forced to reduce its collection by about three fourths as part of a move to a different part of the building.(14) And I found a large number of historical sources in the Labor Department Library (which remains open). In both libraries, I found some sources which I either probably or certainly would not have found in a non-government library.(15)

During the 1871-1891 period, the very small number of poverty lines and related items that I found were all associated in one way or another with state bureaus of labor statistics  especially the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, the first such bureau ever founded in the United States. Several items were included in reports of state bureaus, while another item was an analysis based on material from such a report. The one partial exception to the association with state bureaus of labor statistics was the nutrition research of Wilbur Atwater beginning in the mid-1880's. (I discussed this research because it established a tradition which strongly influenced food components of standard budgets during the twentieth century, and within which the Agriculture Department developed its food plans beginning in the early 1930's.) Most of Atwater's studies were published in U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. However, even Atwater had at least a modest association with a state bureau of labor statistics: one early analysis in which he played a significant role was published in a report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor.(16)

During the 1895-1921 period, by contrast, the majority of the poverty lines, budget studies, and related items that I found were associated with social workers  although a modest number of items were published by state bureaus of labor statistics, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and labor union advocates. As I discuss in my paper on pre-1965 poverty lines, a significant number of social workers during the Progressive Era were activist social reformers.(17) During the early part of the period, some informal quantitative estimates of income inadequacy and a few standard budgets were published  usually in articles or as brief sections of books. Between 1907 and 1921, over a dozen significant budget studies were published. (For a discussion of one, see the Appendix.) Most of them presented standard budgets at one level or another, while three or four presented judgments of income adequacy based on an examination of families' actual consumption patterns. The studies were usually for working-class families in a single city or neighborhood. Most were published as books or pamphlets, while a couple were published as volumes or sections of larger investigations (the federal Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States in 19 Volumes, and the fourth yearly report of the (New York State) Factory Investigating Commission). Some of the standard budgets were developed for use in setting wage levels. As budget studies began to accumulate, people also began publishing reviews of them (commonly as brief sections in books), sometimes including figures for a "minimum standard" or a "fair standard of living" based on budget studies for several different cities. (I have termed such figures "derivative" standards to distinguish them from figures developed in individual budget studies covering single cities or neighborhoods.)

During the 1920's, people continued to develop new standard budgets, but they seem to have been on somewhat more of a routinized basis than the major budget studies of the Progressive Era. Historical sources published during this period also included several significant reviews of budget studies  in particular, an important one by Dorothy Douglas which included a classification scheme for budget levels or standards which was adopted (in whole or in part) by a number of other analysts over the next decade and a half.(18) Other interesting historical sources during this period  sources which time has not yet allowed me to cover in "From Hunter to Orshansky..." included several brief discussions of the problems of poverty and low wages for unskilled labor (some using contemporary standard-budget-derived figures to specify the economic level they were discussing).(19)

Some budget studies and reviews of budget studies continued to be published in the 1930's. The proportion of historical sources which were federal government documents was higher than during earlier periods as a result of the federal government becoming involved in dealing with the problems of the Great Depression. In the early 1930's, in the wake of malnutrition and hunger caused by the Depression and a major drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began to publish its four diets or food plans at different cost levels. And in the late 1930's, several federal agencies published a pair of standard budgets and several analyses including low-income lines. (The low-income figure in one 1938 report was essentially an operationalization of President Roosevelt's "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.")

After World War II there was a major break in the tradition of American poverty line studies. Poverty lines during the 1946-1965 period were generally derived not from standard budgets but by simply setting dollar figures, with greater or lesser amounts of supporting details and rationales. (However, the Labor Department did publish full-fledged standard budgets  the City Worker's Family Budget and its successors. Although none of these budgets were poverty lines or subsistence budgets(20), they are relevant to the broader topic of measures of income adequacy or inadequacy.) These poverty lines appeared in books, pamphlets, articles, and a few labor federation periodicals and annual meeting proceedings. A number of these poverty lines were developed by private individuals and organizations, but some appeared in various federal government documents  e.g., reports of Congressional committees and the Council of Economic Advisers. (The Agriculture Department continued to revise and publish its food plans several times a decade.)

Historical Sources on the Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line

For my paper on the income elasticity of the poverty line, the American evidence was largely drawn from material I had used for the two earlier papers on the current poverty thresholds and on pre-1965 poverty lines. I also used about half a dozen published analyses of a series of answers during the 1947-1989 period to a repeated Gallup Poll question, "What is the smallest amount of money a family of four...needs each week to get along in this community?" (sometimes referred to as the "get-along" question).

The British evidence for this paper included about a dozen poverty surveys published between 1901 and 1951. These surveys usually dealt with the poverty population in a single town, and were generally published as books or pamphlets. I also used some more recent British books, chapters, and articles on poverty definition and measurement.

The Canadian evidence included an 1897 sociological study of conditions in certain working-class areas of Montreal, and a handful of standard budgets published between 1922 and 1943 in Parliamentary hearings, a pamphlet, a book, and a labor union journal. I also used material on Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut-Offs, published largely in Canadian government documents. And I made use of an article reviewing answers during the 1973-1985 period to a repeated "get-along" question asked by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion.

The Australian evidence included a standard budget published in the 1920 report of the [Australian] Royal Commission on the Basic Wage, a poverty-level standard budget developed during the late 1960's as part of a Ph.D. thesis, and material from a book and several articles about the Henderson poverty line, the unofficial but widely used Australian poverty line. I also used a paper analysing answers during the 1950-1988 period to a repeated [Australian] Morgan Gallup Poll question similar to the "get-along" question but using the operative phrase "to keep in health and live decently."


While a number of the historical sources that I used are little-known, this is of course not true of all of them. Few people have heard of (for instance) the 1891 standard budget developed by the Iowa Bureau of Labor Statistics(21), or the 1902 standard budget developed by Father John Ryan(22). However, a number of historians and social scientists are familiar with such sources as the 1907-1910 family standard of living studies by Louise Bolard More, Robert Chapin, and Margaret Byington,(23) and some have made them the subject of scholarly articles and chapters(24).

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Some Historical Findings About the Social Process of Developing Poverty Lines

On the basis of my study of the history of pre-1965 U.S. poverty lines (supported in some areas by my study of the history of the current poverty thresholds), I arrived at several preliminary conclusions about the social process of developing poverty lines(25):

  • Poverty lines during the 1870-1965 period were usually developed by advocates of the disadvantaged rather than by academic social scientists elucidating abstract concepts about minimum consumption.
  • During the 1900-1965 period, a noticeable proportion of the persons involved in developing poverty lines (and standard budgets generally) in the U.S. were women.
  • (Macro)economists did not get involved in U.S. poverty line studies  and poverty studies did not become a distinct field as such  before the beginning of the War on Poverty in 1964.
  • Hypothetical food budgets or food plans are an unsatisfactory means of determining the level of food expenditures that a real, living family needs to make in order to have a nutritionally adequate diet.
  • In the United States, Britain, and Canada, successive poverty lines developed as absolute poverty lines show a pattern of getting higher in real terms over time as the real income of the general population rises. (The Australian evidence illustrates this phenomenon more indirectly.)

As noted earlier, the last of these findings is a phenomenon known as the income elasticity of the poverty line. I will describe this phenomenon in more detail in the following sections because it represents a historical finding with significant implications for present-day policy decisions. This historical finding was ignored in a 1968-1969 decision to "freeze" the poverty line by updating it for price changes only (an event of significant historical interest in itself). However, this finding did influence a 1995 recommendation that a proposed new poverty line for the U.S. be updated in a quasi-relative fashion.

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The American Evidence for the Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line(26)

The evidence for the income elasticity of the poverty line is extensive, and the American evidence is more extensive than that for any of the other countries that I discussed in my paper on that subject. The American evidence includes expert-devised minimum budgets prepared over six decades; "subjective" low-income figures in the form of national responses to the Gallup Poll "get-along" question (mentioned above) over four decades; and the recorded common knowledge of experts on poverty lines and family budgets from about 1900 to 1970.

From roughly 1905 to 1960, American budget experts developed a number of standard budgets at different levels of living. In 1966, Oscar Ornati analyzed about 60 standard budgets prepared during the 1905-1960 period, and classified them as being at "minimum subsistence," "minimum adequacy," and "minimum comfort" levels. (His "minimum subsistence" category corresponds to our concept of poverty.) A 1973 study by Robert W. Kilpatrick showed that Ornati's minimum subsistence figures over this 55-year period rose 0.75 percent in real terms for each 1.0 percent increase in the real disposable income per capita of the general population.

An examination (in my income elasticity paper) of early poverty lines and budgets not considered by Ornati confirms and extends this picture. The poverty/subsistence figures examined (like Ornati's budgets) were all derived as absolute poverty lines. Yet over time, these successive absolute poverty lines rose in real terms as the income of the general population rose. Poverty lines and minimum subsistence budgets before World War I were, in constant dollars, generally between 43 and 54 percent of Mollie Orshansky's poverty threshold for 1963. By 1923, Dorothy Douglas' "minimum of subsistence level" (expressed as a range rather than a single dollar figure) was equal to 53 percent to 68 percent of Orshansky's threshold. A U.S. Works Progress Administration "emergency" budget for the Depression year of 1935 was equal to 65 percent of Orshansky's poverty threshold. Robert Lampman's low-income line for 1957 was equal to 88 percent of Orshansky's poverty threshold.

Evidence from an overlapping but more recent period (extending up to the 1990's) comes from the Gallup Poll "get-along" question, which has been asked since 1946. The average response to the "get-along" question has been higher than the Orshansky poverty line, but it seems reasonable to assume that the relationship between the "get-along" amount and family income is a good indicator of how the public's perception of the poverty line would vary over time in relation to family income (if a "poverty" poll question had been asked). Half a dozen analyses have found that the "get-along" amount rises by between 0.6 and 1.0 percent for every 1.0 percent increase in the income of the general population.

Another significant (although neglected) source of evidence about the income elasticity of the poverty line is the common knowledge of experts on poverty lines and family budgets before 1970, as documented in quotations from their writings. There is one such quotation from 1841, over a dozen from the 1900-1959 period, and over a dozen from the 1960's. It is clear that the income elasticity of the poverty line was well known to these experts, and that they were quite familiar with the underlying social processes involved.(27) One quotation which illustrates these social processes with particular clarity was written in 1938 by Carroll R. Daugherty: "A standard budget worked out in the [1890's], for example, would have no place for electric appliances, automobiles, spinach, radios, and many other things which found a place on the 1938 comfort model. The budget of 1950 will undoubtedly make the present one look as antiquated as the hobble skirt."(28) Some of the quotations make ironic reading in the light of subsequent history, as when the Social Security Administration's Ida Merriam (Mollie Orshansky's boss) wrote in 1967 that "It is easy to observe that poverty in the U.S. today cannot meaningfully be defined in the same way as in the U.S. of 1900....obviously today's [poverty] measure, even if corrected year by year for changes in the price level...should not be acceptable twenty, ten or perhaps even five years hence."(29) (As things turned out, of course, the poverty measure of the 1960's, adjusted only for "changes in the price level," is still in use not merely ten or twenty but thirty years later.) Others publicly recognizing the income elasticity of the poverty line during the mid-1960's included Rose Friedman and the Republican minority of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

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Why Is the Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line So Poorly Known Today?

It is clear, then, that the income elasticity of the poverty line was well known among Americans who developed and studied poverty lines during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. In the 1990's, however, this extensive body of evidence is very poorly known, and has hardly figured at all in U.S. academic discussions about poverty lines. What could be the reason for this change?

My historical studies of U.S. poverty lines have led me to believe that this change in knowledge is connected with a change in the identity of the groups that develop and/or study poverty lines in the U.S. Up until about 1965, the people who developed (and studied) poverty lines were (as noted above) usually advocates of the disadvantaged rather than academic social scientists elucidating abstract concepts about minimum consumption. (This group of advocates who developed poverty lines includes Mollie Orshansky.) In terms of professions, the pre-1965 developers of poverty lines and budgets included social workers (especially during the Progressive Era, when social work included many activist social reformers), employees of state bureaus of labor statistics, labor union representatives, home economists, and employees of federal social agencies. Some economists did participate, but they were only one of several elements in the mix, and relatively little of the pre-1965 poverty line literature that I have found was in traditional economic publications. (When economists were involved with poverty lines, there was some tendency for them to be women interested in distributional or household economics, rather than men interested in macroeconomics.)

However, that situation changed after the War on Poverty began in 1964. Poverty studies became a distinct field as such, and economists began to get involved in poverty line studies in significant numbers. People who had been involved in developing and studying poverty lines during the 1950's and early 1960's gradually retired and/or died during the 1970's and 1980's. By 1980, Walter Korpi of Sweden was noting that sectorially oriented poverty research in the United States was "clearly dominated" by economists (in contrast to the situation in Britain and Scandinavia, where there was a "relatively even balance" between sociologists and economists).(30) What Korpi said of poverty studies in general is true of poverty line studies in particular. Today if one mentions (in an American context) that one deals with poverty  or poverty lines  a common response is, "You must be an economist, then."

Knowledge of the income elasticity of the poverty line was part of the history and traditions that had been passed down among the earlier group of people who developed and studied poverty lines. As these advocates of the disadvantaged were gradually succeeded by economists who got involved in studying poverty and poverty lines beginning in the 1960's, it appears that the history and traditions of the earlier group tended not to be taken in by the newcomers as part of their own history and traditions. (An additional factor may have been that economists tend to give more emphasis to theory than to history.) As a result, the knowledge about the income elasticity of the poverty line was to a great degree lost to those who now study poverty lines.

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The Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line Ignored: The Decision to "Freeze" the Poverty Line in 1968-1969(31)

The income elasticity of the poverty line was well-known to Social Security Administration personnel during the 1960's (although they generally did not refer to it by that specific term). As early as November 1965  only six months after the poverty thresholds had been adopted as the U.S. government's poverty measure on a quasi-official basis  Social Security Administration policymakers and analysts began to express concern about how to adjust the poverty thresholds for increases in the general standard of living.

In the spring of 1968, the Social Security Administration tried to take a very modest step towards raising the poverty thresholds to reflect increases in the general standard of living. The specific step proposed was to use a recently revised, slightly higher-priced version of the Agriculture Department's economy food plan to recalculate the poverty thresholds; this would have raised the thresholds by 8 percent in real terms. (There was also informal discussion about the possibility of replacing the poverty threshold multiplier(32) of three with a higher multiplier derived from a 1965 rather than a 1955 food consumption survey, but this idea was not part of the formal Social Security Administration proposal for revising the thresholds. Together with the use of the revised food plan, this higher multiplier would have resulted in poverty thresholds 25 to 30 percent higher than the existing thresholds.)

The Social Security Administration started to implement its modest proposal, but in July 1968 the Bureau of the Budget (the predecessor of the Office of Management and Budget) prohibited the modest increase in the poverty thresholds. However, at the same time the Bureau of the Budget initiated an interagency Poverty Level Review Committee to re-evaluate the poverty thresholds. At the first meeting of this committee, in October 1968, a representative of the Council of Economic Advisers commented that "from the political point of view one simply could not increase the poverty level in a year when employment was good." Later in the same meeting "[i]t was emphasized that with respect to overall government policy it was essential that means be found for 'score-keeping' without sudden shifts in the level [poverty threshold]. A consistent measure, adjusted basically for price movement, is necessary in order to measure the effect of government policies and changes in the economy upon the number of families and persons below a 'poverty' income level." In all the records of subsequent meetings of this committee that I have, there was essentially no discussion of the issue of raising the poverty thresholds in real terms to reflect changes in the general standard of living. Instead, the committee decided in 1969 to adjust the thresholds only for price changes, using the Consumer Price Index. (The thresholds had previously been indexed by the per capita cost of the foods in the economy food plan.) In 1970, Orshansky described the 1969 decision as "tend[ing] to freeze the poverty line despite changes in buying habits and changes in acceptable living standards."

In the light of the extensive American evidence for the income elasticity of the poverty line  from standard budgets and unofficial poverty lines, the Gallup Poll, and the common knowledge of experts  it becomes clear that the 1969 decision to adjust the poverty thresholds only for price changes (and not for changes in the general standard of living) represents a single major historical anomaly. The anomaly of the 1969 decision is highlighted by the fact that when the Council of Economic Advisers' $3,000 poverty line and then the Orshansky poverty thresholds had been adopted only five and four years earlier (respectively), they had been known to be 14 to 19 percent higher in real terms than unofficial poverty lines introduced only six or fifteen years earlier. Yet in all the material on poverty definition and measurement from this period that I have read, I have never found any record of someone objecting to the adoption of either the CEA poverty line or the Orshansky poverty thresholds on the grounds that poverty is absolute, that a satisfactory estimate of minimum absolute needs had been developed six or fifteen years ago, and that it would be wrong and/or confusing to adopt a new poverty line that was higher in real terms than the earlier figure.

Indeed, I have come to believe that the 1969 decision to "freeze" the poverty line marks the point in history (if a single such point can be identified) at which American attitudes towards poverty lines fundamentally diverged from those held in other developed countries. In other developed countries (e.g., European nations, including Britain) it has generally been recognized that poverty is relative  that the level considered to be "poverty" will rise roughly in line with a society's average standard of living. Before the 1969 decision, this was generally also recognized in the U.S. among the groups that developed and studied poverty lines and budgets; as just noted in the previous paragraph, this view manifested itself as late as 1964 and 1965, when new, higher poverty lines were adopted without any major opposition. Since the 1969 decision, however, the view has arisen in the U.S. among the new group studying poverty lines that poverty should be absolute  that it makes sense to adjust the poverty line only for price changes over an indefinite period. Indeed, the existence of a "frozen" U.S. poverty line seems to have been self-reinforcing. Once the current official poverty line  the only poverty line that more and more people had ever been aware of  was made absolute, and remained so, it became more difficult for many people to realize (and less likely that they would investigate history to find out) that the basic pattern both in the U.S. and in other countries has been for poverty lines to rise in real terms as the real income of the general population rises.

There was strong resistance in 1969 to the idea of raising the poverty line in real terms, and this strong resistance has continued down to the present day, almost a generation later.(33) However, the primary reason given for this resistance seems to have changed over the years.

During the events of 1968-1969, the primary objection to a higher poverty line seems to have been the fact that it would have resulted in a higher poverty count  specifically, in 2.8 million more persons being counted as poor. (Although the poverty thresholds at this point were still only a quasi-official rather than a fully official federal measure of poverty, the Census Bureau was already using them to calculate and issue annual figures on the number of Americans in poverty.) Reporting a revised poverty count that would have been 2.8 million persons higher would have been politically embarrassing to the Johnson Administration, which had proclaimed a War on Poverty and which was in a position of being able to boast of a three-year drop in the poverty population of 5.6 million persons. Too many people might have misunderstood or misinterpreted a 2.8-million-person "increase" in the poverty population as being the result of failed Administration anti-poverty policies or failed Administration management of the economy, rather than as the statistical result of a redefinition of poverty.

A decade later, the objection to a higher poverty count continued to be a primary reason for resistance to a higher U.S. poverty line. At a 1979 meeting of the Interagency Committee on Income and Wealth Distribution Statistics to consider the elimination of separate detailed poverty thresholds for male-headed and female-headed families, it was stated that "the Committee might wish to make recommendations for other changes [in the poverty measure] which would not be perceived as having a significant impact on the number of persons counted as poor, and which would not significantly modify the structure of the current measure" [emphasis added].(34) And in 1980, a European observer wrote that the retention of an absolute poverty line in the U.S. was "probably largely related to the fact that an absolute measure of poverty is more likely than a relative one to indicate 'progress' over time"(35) i.e., to show a decrease in the number of persons counted as poor.

However, in more recent years, the primary objection to a higher poverty line seems to have been a belief that it would make more people eligible for means-tested social programs.(36) In its 1995 report, in trying to explain why the current poverty measure has been "almost impervious to change," the National Research Council's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance cited "the fact that [the poverty measure] is used to determine eligibility for a number of government assistance programs...."(37) It is not surprising that this objection to a higher poverty line should have become more common in recent years, since the number of programs using the poverty guidelines for eligibility has increased during the decades since 1969.(38) To mention the largest of these programs: the food stamp and school lunch programs began to use the poverty guidelines for eligibility during the early 1970's.(39) Medicaid did not begin to use the poverty guidelines for eligibility even in part until 1986.(40) (Note that in 1995, only about 20 to 25 percent of Medicaid recipients had their eligibility determined using the poverty guidelines.(41)) It should be noted that even today, beliefs about the eligibility (and thus budgetary) effects of a higher poverty line seem to be somewhat exaggerated. A number of people seem to believe that the poverty guidelines affect many big "entitlement" programs, but in actuality the only non-discretionary or mandatory ("entitlement") programs using the poverty guidelines are the food stamp program, the school lunch program, and roughly one fourth of Medicaid. The other federal programs using the guidelines are medium-sized or small fixed-appropriation programs.(42) (See the discussion of fixed-appropriation programs in footnote 38.)

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The Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line Recognized:
A 1995 Recommendation to Adjust a Proposed Poverty Line in a Quasi-relative Fashion

In 1990, a Congressional committee requested a study of the official U.S. poverty measure by the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council to provide a basis for a possible revision of the poverty measure. In 1992, the NRC's Committee on National Statistics appointed a Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance (comprising thirteen non-government academic experts) to conduct this study.(43) In May 1995, the Panel published its report of the study (Constance F. Citro and Robert T. Michael (editors), Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995). In the report, the Panel proposed a new approach for developing an official poverty measure for the U.S.

The Panel did not propose a specific set of dollar figures for its proposed new poverty measure. However, it did present a "reasonable range" for the initial value of a new poverty threshold for a four-person (two-adult, two-child) family.(44) After adjusting for the differences between the Panel's family resources concept and the current official Census Bureau definition of income, the range proposed by the Panel for the new threshold would be between 14 and 33 percent higher than the current poverty threshold; this would take into account the real growth in the general population's standard of living since the official poverty thresholds were first established three decades ago.(45)

Moreover, the Panel recommended that its proposed new poverty line be updated in a quasi-relative fashion. The Panel's proposal would update its poverty threshold each year to reflect changes in food/clothing/shelter expenditures by two-adult/two-child families in the general population (using a three-year average of expenditures to moderate business-cycle-related fluctuations).(46) In other words, the Panel's threshold would rise in real terms over time as the real standard of living of the general population increased. The Panel cited considerable historical evidence that successive absolute poverty lines and budgets rise in real terms over time as the real income of the general population rises.(47) "...we conclude that the relevant question is not whether poverty thresholds should be updated for changes in real consumption, but whether they should be updated on a sporadic or on a regular basis."(48) In the context of the last three decades of U.S. practice, the Panel's recommendation for quasi-relative updating represents a historic change  even though in the longer context it represents a return to the normal pattern which characterized the first two thirds of the century.

By proposing a new poverty line that would be higher than the current one and that would be updated in a quasi-relative fashion, the Panel was recognizing the income elasticity of the poverty line. In connection with the recommendation for quasi-relative updating, my paper on the income elasticity of the poverty line was one of the sources for the historical evidence the Panel cited (see footnote 47) that successive absolute poverty lines rise in real terms over time as the real income of the general population rises.


At a more routine level of utilization of historical material, I have used my three poverty line historical papers (and summaries of them) to answer numerous questions about the history of U.S. poverty lines. I have sent or given copies of the papers and summaries to researchers and government employees in this country and in Canada, Mexico, Britain, Germany, the (former) Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, India, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia, while a colleague gave a copy of my Social Security Bulletin article to government officials from Albania.

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"The Family Economy of Cotton Operatives" 
A 1912 Budget Study of Cotton-Mill Workers

In February 1912(49), the U.S. Bureau of Labor (BoL) published a study(50) of the budgets of certain cotton-mill workers in 1908. The study was done by Wood Worcester, a lawyer who became a social worker, and his wife Daisy Worthington Worcester, a social worker.(51) This was one of the very few Progressive-Era standard budget studies prepared by a federal government agency rather than by reformers or labor union advocates working at the local or state level. (Budget study reviews between 1916 and the 1930's generally did not treat this study as being either distinctive or more authoritative merely because it had been performed by a federal government agency.) However, this study was similar to a number of the non-federal studies in that it was performed by social workers.

The 1912 study was part of a much larger federal investigation into working conditions of women and children (the results of which were reported in 19 volumes). The initiation of the larger investigation had been due largely to persistent pressure from settlement house workers concerned about women's unhealthy working conditions and long working hours, and other social workers opposed to child labor. The cotton mill industry was one of the major targets of this investigation. The 1912 study grew out of the question of whether families in cotton-mill towns needed the earnings from the labor of their young children in order to have an income that the family could live on.(52)

Before developing a standard budget, the Worcesters made an intensive study of the incomes and expenditures of 21 Southern and 14 Massachusetts cotton-mill families at varying income levels.(53) Inspired by British poverty researcher Seebohm Rowntree's two concepts of poverty, the Worcesters decided to develop two budget standards(54) a "minimum standard of living" and a "fair standard of living." The study noted that these standards were developed "according to the customs prevailing in the communities selected for study....These standards, it should be emphasized, are the standards found to be actually prevailing among cotton-mill families of the several communities studied, and are not standards fixed by the judgment either of the investigators or of the Bureau of Labor."(55)

The Worcesters' "minimum standard of living" was designed "to detail the smallest amount upon which families were living and apparently maintaining physical efficiency." The food component of the minimum standard was a "dietary" used in the federal prison in Atlanta in late 1908 which came close to meeting the (rather rudimentary) contemporary Agriculture Department nutrition requirements (exceeding the calorie (energy) requirement and meeting 95 percent of the protein requirement). The minimum standard excluded amusements and recreations, tobacco, newspapers, the replacement of any worn-out household articles, medical care, and burial expenses; because it also excluded the purchase of schoolbooks, "[t]he children can not go to school...."(56)

The Worcesters' "fair standard of living" was designed to provide "not only for physical efficiency but [to allow] for the development and satisfaction of human attributes"; it was to include "[n]othing...other than what some [cotton-mill] families have already attained, and all [such] families are striving to attain." For the fair standard, a diet was adopted that was "somewhat better than the prison diet...." The fair standard made allowance for a moderate amount of medical care, burial expenses (through insurance), simple recreation, and the purchase of schoolbooks so children could attend school, but excluded savings and provision for old age. The Worcesters actually identified the fair standard as a poverty line, indicating that medical care was almost as much a necessity as food and shelter; "[i]nability to buy school books for the children, to furnish some simple form of recreation for the family, are unmistakably signs of poverty."(57) However, in a 1966 classification of standard budgets, Oscar Ornati put the Worcesters' fair standard at his minimum adequacy level, one level above minimum subsistence [the equivalent of poverty], while putting their minimum standard at his minimum subsistence level.(58)

The Worcesters developed Northern and Southern versions of their budgets, for Fall River, Massachusetts, and for Atlanta and two North Carolina towns, respectively. (As indicated above, the reference year for the family budgets in the study was 1908.) For the Southern towns, the annual cost for a five-person family of specified composition was $408.26 for the minimum standard and $600.74 for the fair standard. For Fall River, the annual cost for the same type of five-person family was $484.41 for the minimum standard.(59) For the fair standard, rental housing segregation in Fall River led to differing rents and thus different totals for different groups of immigrants: $731.99 for earlier immigrant groups (English, Irish, and Canadian French) and $690.95 for more recent immigrant groups (Portuguese, Polish, and Italian).(60) The Fall River minimum standard figure of $484.41 would be equal to roughly $1,600 in 1963 dollars  about 43 percent of Orshansky's 1963 average nonfarm poverty threshold of $3,685 for a family of five. The Fall River fair standard figure of $731.99 for the earlier immigrant groups would be equal to roughly $2,500 in 1963 dollars  about 68 percent of Orshansky's 1963 nonfarm threshold for a family of five.

After the Worcester/BoL study was published, it was denounced in Congress by Senator Lee Overman of North Carolina (in which were located two of the cotton-mill communities studied by the Worcesters). He was reacting in part to a Washington Herald newspaper story which had been headlined "Southern Mills Bad as Prisons...Families Ill-Fed, Poorly Clad...." (Presumably the headline writer was alluding to the fact that the "dietary" used by the Worcesters as the food component of their minimum standard was from the federal prison in Atlanta.) He said that the comparison of "these free-born American citizens who work in the cotton mills" with "penitentiary convicts" was "odious and will enable some of these fanatical people to go up and down the country and charge that these cotton mill hands are treated like convicts....I remind the Senate that the penitentiary referred to is a Federal Penitentiary at Atlanta, and that the prisoners are fed out of the bountiful funds of the Treasury of the United States. I want to read two menus of just two days to show that those convicts live as well as the ordinary man in the country...." He went on to read selectively from menus of the better-off families covered by the study (ignoring the families below the minimum standard), trying to show that the cotton mill workers were living well and were well treated by the manufacturers. "Do not your mouths water, and do you not long for the good old-fashioned cooking even of these poor cotton mill families?" Despite the senator's attacks, the Bureau of Labor did not repudiate the Worcesters' study.(61) However, note that the study in effect represented a one-time condemnation of conditions in cotton mills; it did not include recommendations for legislative action. If the study had been doing something like proposing an official subsistence level or poverty line, it is possible that stronger political pressures might have forced the Bureau of Labor to repudiate it  much as pressures during 1968-1969 prevented the adoption of a higher poverty line. Similarly, if the study had been presenting a major demographic finding that might have been expected to significantly change the terms of public policy debates (such as the 1910 Census "overcount" of women workers discussed in the Magnuson/Sobek paper also being presented in this Social Science History Association session), it is possible that pressures might have forced the Bureau of Labor to repudiate it.

The Worcester/BoL study was rather influential on later Progressive-Era budget studies and reviews of budget studies:

  • The Worcesters' minimum standard/fair standard distinction was adopted by two reviews of budget studies  one published in 1913 by Scott Nearing(62) and one published in 1916 by Maurice Parmelee(63). Nearing's review thus became the earliest review that I have found that presented more than one "derivative" budget standard.
  • The following individual budget studies explicitly stated that the standard budgets that they were presenting were at the level of the Worcester/BoL fair standard: a 1919 study of working-class living standards in Philadelphia (including a budget developed for use in setting wages for the city government's manual workers)(64); and a study published in 1920 of budgets of textile-mill workers' families in a section of Philadelphia(65).

The Worcesters' "minimum standard of living" can be used as an illustration of how the standard budget was a two-edged sword that could be used against reform as well as for it. As standard budgets began to come into use in the early 1900's, they were used as a tool of social reform  as an antidote to the middle-class nostrums of "thrift" and "frugality." Middle-class moralizers writing about unskilled working-class families had long argued that any family income, no matter how low, could be made to be a sufficient income if the (working-class) family receiving it just worked hard enough at spending it efficiently. Subsistence-level standard budgets were used to refute this argument. Subsistence budgets presented in a concrete, quantitative form a standard of living so low that almost everyone would accept it as being barely adequate. If a family (of the appropriate size and composition) had an income below the level of the budget, it was clear that it was impossible for the family to use that income to provide itself with a standard of living that was even barely adequate. As a 1915 summary of the Worcester/BoL study put it, families falling below the minimum standard "had annual incomes so small that they could not by any exercise of skill, judgment, and economy maintain themselves in a state of physical efficiency...."(66) ("[P]hysical efficiency" referred to meeting a family's physical needs while ignoring their social needs as human beings.) However, in order to devise a standard of living that almost everyone would accept as being barely adequate, standard budget makers found themselves under pressure to set a very low standard  one that even conservatives would be unable to label "extravagant." Budget makers were often pushed to deal with this bind by making heroic assumptions about how "efficient" a (working-class) family  and particularly the mother in such a family  would be in spending a limited income. Budget makers were often aware of the problem of unrealistic expectations imposed on mothers, and a number of them commented on it; for instance, a 1919 Bureau of Labor Statistics budget study (one with no historical connection with the Worcester/BoL study) included the comment, " housewife can reasonably be expected to perform more than one miracle of domestic economy each day."(67) Because of this problem, standard budgets could be used as a means of "blaming the victim" as well as a tool of social reform; if a (working-class) family with an income equal to the cost of a standard budget was unable to provide for itself an actual level of living as good as the theoretical standard set forth in the budget, some argued that it was not because the budget was unrealistic or because the family's income was inadequate, but because the family  and particularly the wife  was not a sufficiently "efficient" spender or manager.

Concerning the expectations which their "minimum standard of living" implicitly imposed on the mother of the family, the Worcesters wrote, "If the family [is to] live upon this sum without suffering, wisdom to properly apportion the income is necessary....the mother must be a woman of rare ability. She must know how to make her own and her children's clothing; she must be physically able to do all of the household work, including the washing. And she must know enough to purchase with her allowance food that has the proper nutritive value."(68) In his 1913 review of budget studies, Dr. Scott Nearing, a radical economist(69), explicitly criticized the expectations imposed by the Worcesters' minimum standard: "[I]f a woman is to support a family on this income [$408.26 a year in North Carolina and Georgia], she must have a skill and power of management which would bring her from $12 to $15 a week [$624 to $780 a year] if she were at work in an industrial establishment....the assumption of the remarkable qualities which the authors of the government study demand in a woman who is to pilot a Georgia family through 365 days on $408.26 is unjustifiable in the extreme. The exceptional woman may possess them; but the average woman does not....Since the housewife in Fall River [the site for the Northern estimate] is to be the same type of super-woman as that demanded in the Georgia estimate, the same objection holds as in that case."(70)

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1.  For a description of the poverty guidelines (including the distinction between the poverty guidelines and the poverty thresholds) and their use, see Gordon M. Fisher, "Poverty Guidelines for 1992," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 43-46. For more details on federal and non-federal programs using the poverty guidelines, see Gordon M. Fisher, "Disseminating the Administrative Version of the Federal Poverty Measure in the 1990's" (a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Sociological Practice Association in Arlington, Virginia), June 1996, pp. 4-9.

2.  An account that is accurate can be found in U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, The Measure of Poverty[:] A Report to Congress as Mandated by The Education Amendments of 1974, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1976, pp. 5-9. However, this account only covered developments through 1973. In addition, it did not go into as much detail on some issues as some inquirers wanted.

3.  See, for instance, Mollie Orshansky, "Children of the Poor," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 7, July 1963, pp. 3-13; Orshansky, "Counting the Poor: Another Look at the Poverty Profile," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 1, January 1965, pp. 3-29; Orshansky, "Who's Who Among the Poor: A Demographic View of Poverty," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 7, July 1965, pp. 3-32; Orshansky, "How poverty is measured," Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 92, No. 2, February 1969, pp. 37-41; Orshansky, Harold Watts, Bradley R. Schiller, and John J. Korbel, "Measuring Poverty: A Debate," Public Welfare, Vol. 36, No. 2, spring 1978, pp. 46-55; Carol Fendler and Orshansky, "Improving the Poverty Definition," American Statistical Association[:] 1979 Proceedings of the Social Statistics Section, pp. 640-645; and Orshansky, "Commentary: The Poverty Measure," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 51, No. 10, October 1988, pp. 22-24.

4.  Gordon M. Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds and Their Subsequent History as the Official U.S. Poverty Measure" (unpublished paper), May 1992. In September 1997 I completed a partial revision of this paper.

5.  Fisher, "The Development and History of the Poverty Thresholds," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 3-14. For a two-page summary, see Fisher, "The Development and History of the U.S. Poverty Thresholds  A Brief Overview," GSS/SSS Newsletter [Newsletter of the Government Statistics Section and the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association], Winter 1997, pp. 6-7.

6.  For Hunter's poverty line, see Robert Hunter, Poverty, New York, Macmillan, 1904, pp. 51-53; one 1960's source citing Hunter was Herman P. Miller, "Changes in the Number and Composition of the Poor," pp. 93-94 in Margaret S. Gordon (editor), Poverty in America[:] Proceedings of a national conference held at the University of California, Berkeley..., San Francisco, Chandler Publishing, 1965. For the Subcommittee on Low-Income Families' $2,000 low-income line, see U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Economic Report, Low-Income Families and Economic Stability[  ]Materials on the Problem of Low-Income Families Assembled by the Staff of the Subcommittee on Low-Income Families..., Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949, pp. 2 and 9-10. (This low-income line was applied to income data for 1948.) One 1960's source citing this low-income line was Burton A. Weisbrod, "The Economics of Poverty: An American Paradox," pp. 13-14 in Burton A. Weisbrod (editor), The Economics of Poverty, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.

7.  Gordon M. Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky: An Overview of (Unofficial) Poverty Lines in the United States from 1904 to 1965" (a paper presented at the Fifteenth Annual Research Conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in Washington, D.C.), October 1993. In August 1997 I completed a revision of this paper.

8.  A standard budget is a list of goods and services that a family of a specified size and composition  and sometimes of a specified social class or occupational group  would need to live at a designated level of well-being, together with the estimated monthly or annual costs of those goods and services. (See Judith Eleanor Innes, Knowledge and Public Policy[:] The Search for Meaningful Indicators, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Transaction Publishers, 1990, p. 138; and Mollie Orshansky, "Family Budgets and Fee Schedules of Voluntary Agencies," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 22, No. 4, April 1959, p. 10.)

9.  Gordon M. Fisher, "Is There Such a Thing as an Absolute Poverty Line Over Time? Evidence from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia on the Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line" (a revised version of a paper presented October 28, 1994, at the Sixteenth Annual Research Conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in Chicago, Illinois), August 1995. For a brief summary of the U.S. evidence in this paper, see Gordon M. Fisher, "Relative or Absolute  New Light on the Behavior of Poverty Lines Over Time," GSS/SSS Newsletter [Joint Newsletter of the Government Statistics Section and the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association], Summer 1996, pp. 10-12; see also one section of Gordon M. Fisher, "Disseminating the Administrative Version and Explaining the Administrative and Statistical Versions of the Federal Poverty Measure," Clinical Sociology Review, Vol. 15, 1997 (forthcoming).

10.  I was inspired to track down Orshansky's Congressional testimony by a 1974 paper which cited a statement that she made at a 1973 Congressional hearing; see Rene Miller and Arno I. Winard, "Trends and Composition of the Low-Income Population," American Statistical Association[:] Proceedings of the Social Statistics Section[,] 1974, p. 204.

11.  Being a federal government employee working in Washington made it easier to get copies of a number of these documents. As I became interested in the history of the poverty thresholds, I was able to ask various fellow federal employees if they had any memoranda on this subject, and was able to copy them if they did. In addition, as it became known that I was interested in this subject, occasionally other federal employees would tell me that they had some memoranda which might be of interest to me. If I had been a researcher from outside the federal government  even a researcher with a lot of time to devote to such research  it would have been much more difficult to track down as many documents as I did, simply because I would not have known (for instance) that so-and-so in Department X had done a lot of work on poverty, or had served on a 1973 interagency committee.

12.  Ida Merriam was the Assistant Commissioner [director] of the Social Security Administration's Office of Research and Statistics, in which Orshansky worked.

13.  The Departmental Library was the central library for the whole Department. Libraries remain open in several component agencies  e.g., the Food and Drug Administration, the Social Security Administration [which subsequently became an independent agency], and the Parklawn Health Library within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. However, many of the items in the Departmental Library were not duplicated in the agency libraries. (Before 1980, of course, the HHS Library had been known as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Library.) Before its termination, the HHS/HEW Library's collection was an important research resource for scholars, federal employees, and citizens in general. The collection was immediately accessible; one did not have to wait 45 minutes to an hour for a book, as one does at the Library of Congress. The collection combined academic works and journals, documents of HHS and predecessor and related agencies, and documents produced by HHS contractors  all dealing with subject areas dealt with by the Department, and all in one place. As a historian employed by HEW had written in 1969, "[t]he library of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare holds a rich collection of source materials in the history of social welfare" (Blanche D. Coll, Perspectives in Public Welfare  A History, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Social and Rehabilitation Service, Office of Research, Demonstrations, and Training, Intramural Research Division, 1969 (reprinted 1970, 1971), pp. v-vi).

14.  Just one example of the sources that I might have found before 1985 was the following pamphlet listed some years earlier in the published catalog of what was then the HEW Library: National Health Education Committee, In the richest country in the world...Let's push poverty out, New York, 1956? (39 pp.). I have been unable to locate this pamphlet in the Library of Congress, on OCLC (the nationwide computerized library "card catalog"), through inter-library loan, or by contacting the National Health Education Committee in New York.

15.  To cite a single example: in the Labor Department Library, I found a copy of an April 15, 1944, letter from A.F. Hinrichs, Acting Commissioner of Labor Statistics, to Solomon Barkin, Director of Research, Textile Workers Union of America. The letter was labeled "Appendix I[.] Statement of United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Respecting Survey," and was stapled into one of the Labor Department Library's copies of Research Department, Textile Workers Union of America, CIO, Substandard Conditions of Living[:] A Study of the Cost of the Emergency Sustenance Budget in Five Textile Manufacturing Communities in January-February, 1944, New York, 1944.

16.  "Part III. Food Consumption. Quantities, Costs, and Nutrients of Food-Materials.", pp. 237-328 in Seventeenth Annual Report of the [Massachusetts] Bureau of Statistics of Labor. March, 1886., Boston, Wright & Potter Printing Co., State Printers, 1886. For Atwater's role in the study, see p. xviii.

17.  Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 12-13.

18.  Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 11 and 28-29.

19.  See, for instance, Leo E. Keller [Statistician, Brotherhood of [Railroad] Maintenance of Way Employees], "The Wage of the Unskilled Worker," American Federationist [official magazine of the American Federation of Labor], Vol. 35, No. 10, October 1928, pp. 1216-1219.

20.  See Jean C. Brackett, "New BLS budgets provide yardsticks for measuring family living costs," Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 92, No. 4, April 1969, p. 5; and Mark K. Sherwood, "Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Family Budgets Program," Technical Paper IV of The Measure of Poverty, Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1977, pp. 3 and 8-9.

21.  Fourth Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the State of Iowa. 1890-91., Des Moines, Iowa, G.H. Ragsdale, State Printer, 1891, pp. 271-273.

22.  John A. Ryan, "What Wage is a Living Wage?", Catholic World, Vol. 75, No. 445, April 1902, pp. 11-15. For a slightly revised version of this standard budget, see Ryan, A Living Wage[:] Its Ethical and Economic Aspects, New York, Macmillan, 1906, pp. 141-145.

23.  Louise Bolard More, Wage-Earners' Budgets[:] A Study of Standards and Cost of Living in New York City (Greenwich House Series of Social Studies  No. 1), New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1907; Robert Coit Chapin, The Standard of Living Among Workingmen's Families in New York City, New York, Charities Publication Committee, 1909; and Margaret F. Byington, Homestead[:] The Households of a Mill Town (The Pittsburgh Survey[  ]Findings in Six Volumes, edited by Paul Underwood Kellogg), New York, Charities Publication Committee, 1910.

24.  See, for instance, Martha May, "The 'Good Managers': Married Working Class Women and Family Budget Studies, 1895-1915," Labor History, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer 1984, pp. 351-372; and Margo Anderson, "Does the Evidence Support the Argument? Margaret Byington's Cost of Living Survey of Homestead," pp. 106-123 in Maurine W. Greenwald and Margo Anderson (editors), Pittsburgh Surveyed: Social Science and Social Reform in the Early Twentieth Century, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.

25.  Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 61-65.

26.  The material in this section and the following section is drawn from Fisher, "Is There Such a Thing as an Absolute Poverty Line Over Time?...", and Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky...". Much of this material also appears in slightly different form in Fisher, "Relative or Absolute...", and in one section of Fisher, "Disseminating...and Explaining...Versions of the Federal Poverty Measure" (forthcoming).

27.  For brief summaries of the social processes underlying the income elasticity of the poverty line, see Fisher, "Is There Such a Thing as an Absolute Poverty Line Over Time?...", pp. 69-70; Fisher, "Relative or Absolute...", p. 11; and one section of Fisher, "Disseminating...and Explaining...Versions of the Federal Poverty Measure" (forthcoming). The principal sources that I drew on for these summaries were David Hamilton, "Drawing the Poverty Line at a Cultural Subsistence Level," Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4, March 1962, pp. 337-345; [U.S.] President's Commission on Income Maintenance Programs, Poverty Amid Plenty[:] The American Paradox[  ]The Report of The President's Commission..., Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, November 1969, pp. 37-38; and Joanna Mack and Stewart Lansley, Poor Britain, London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1985, pp. 55-56; see also Peter Townsend, Poverty in the United Kingdom[:] A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 50-53.

28.  Carroll R. Daugherty, Labor Problems in American Industry (fourth edition), Cambridge, Massachusetts, Houghton Mifflin, 1938, p. 137.

29.  I[da ]C[. ]Merriam, "The Meaning of Poverty-Effectiveness" (unpublished draft), January 4, 1967, p. 2.

30.  Walter Korpi, "Approaches to the Study of Poverty in the United States: Critical Notes from a European Perspective," pp. 289-290 in Vincent T. Covello (editor), Poverty and Public Policy[:] An Evaluation of Social Science Research, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, G.K. Hall & Co. and Schenkman Publishing Co., 1980.

31.  The material in this section is largely drawn from Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds...", and Fisher, "Is There Such a Thing as an Absolute Poverty Line Over Time?...". Parts of this material also appear in slightly different form in Fisher, "The Development and History of the Poverty Thresholds," Fisher, "The Development and History of the U.S. Poverty Thresholds  A Brief Overview," and Fisher, "Relative or Absolute...".

32.  Orshansky had developed the poverty thresholds by taking the dollar costs of the economy food plan for different family sizes and multiplying them by a factor of three. (She used somewhat different procedures to calculate thresholds for one- and two-person units.) The factor of three  termed "the multiplier"  was derived from the Agriculture Department's 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey.

33.  This strong resistance has been quite evident to people who have been following this public policy issue for any length of time. In its 1995 report, the National Research Council's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance explicitly commented that the present poverty line has been "almost impervious to change" (Constance F. Citro and Robert T. Michael (editors), Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995, p. 43).

34.  Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds..." (1997 revision), p. 43.

35.  Korpi, p. 293.

36.  The fear of higher program caseloads as a consequence of a higher poverty line is also something that has been evident to people who have been following this issue in recent years. (Cf. Fisher, "Disseminating...and Explaining...Versions of the Federal Poverty Measure" (forthcoming), note 1.)

37.  Citro and Michael, p. 43. In a discussion in a 1993 article of reasons why the poverty measure has not undergone any major revision over the last three decades, Denton Vaughan wrote that the link between the poverty measure and program eligibility criteria is "[p]erhaps of more fundamental importance" than the effect of the level of the measure on the number of persons counted as poor (Denton R. Vaughan, "Exploring the Use of the Public's Views to Set Income Poverty Thresholds and Adjust Them Over Time," Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 56, No. 2, Summer 1993, p. 37).

38.  It is true that one 1969 memorandum did mention the possible effect of a higher poverty line on program budgets. However, this possible budgetary effect appears to have been of less importance than the objection to a higher poverty count. The possible budgetary effect was not mentioned in any records of the actual meetings of the Poverty Level Review Committee; it was only mentioned in an attachment to a later memorandum about the official poverty measure. The only programs mentioned as being involved were those of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), and these accounted for only a modest portion of all federal social programs. (Moreover, the reference to the possible budgetary effect may not have been very well thought through, since the OEO programs involved were all discretionary or fixed-appropriation programs. When such a program's annual appropriation is used up, no more persons can receive services from it during that year, no matter how many more persons might be eligible for and apply for those services. Thus there could not have been any direct budgetary effect on those programs from a higher poverty line. Since none of the programs in question were claiming to serve all or almost all of their eligible populations under the existing definition, it is questionable whether there would have been indirect budgetary effects on them from a higher poverty line.)

39.  Congressional Quarterly Inc., Future of Social Programs, Washington, D.C., August 1973, p. 22.

40.  Robert Pear, "Expanded Right to Medicaid Shatters the Link to Welfare," New York Times, March 6, 1988, p. 1; see also Spencer Rich, "Lawmakers Declare War on Infant Death Rate," Washington Post, April 18, 1986, p. A6.

41.  Fisher, "Disseminating...and Explaining...Versions of the Federal Poverty Measure" (forthcoming).

42.  Fisher, "Disseminating...and Explaining...Versions of the Federal Poverty Measure" (forthcoming).

43.  Fisher, "The Development of the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds..." (1997 revision), pp. 47-48.

44.  Citro and Michael, pp. 6, 55, 105-106, 146, and 152-153.

45.  Citro and Michael, pp. 55-56, 106, and 153-154.

46.  Citro and Michael, pp. 5-7, 40, 46-52, and 104-105.

47.  Citro and Michael, pp. 32, 33, 98-99, 103, 141, and 319.

48.  Citro and Michael, p. 103.

49.  The publication date given on the title page of the study was 1911, and the date of the letter of transmittal from the Acting Secretary of Commerce and Labor to the President of the Senate was June 5, 1911 (p. 5). However, one of the authors of the study later reported that it was "given to the public" on February 23, 1912, with a newspaper story about it being published on February 24, 1912 (Daisy Lee Worthington Worcester, Grim the Battles[  ]A Semi-Autobiographical Account of the War Against Want in the United States During the First Half of the Twentieth Century, New York, Exposition Press, 1954, pp. 78-79).

50.  Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States in 19 Volumes[  ]Volume XVI: Family Budgets of Typical Cotton-Mill Workers ( Wood F. Worcester and Daisy Worthington Worcester), Washington, [U.S.] Government Printing Office, 1911. (The quotation in the title of this appendix to the present paper is taken from p. 9 of the 1912 volume.) For a summary of the Worcester/BoL study, see U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Summary of the Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage Earners in the United States (Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics[:] Whole Number 175; Women in Industry Series: No. 5; December 1915), Washington, Government Printing Office, 1916, pp. 383-389. For a review of the Worcester/BoL study, see Margaret F. Byington, "Making Income Equal Outgo[:] What the Struggle Means to Cotton Mill Workers," Survey, Vol. 30, No. 3, April 19, 1913, pp. 109-111.

51.  Worcester, Grim the Battles..., pp. 8-9, 38, 41, and 58.

52.  Allen F. Davis, Spearheads for Reform[:] The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement 1890-1914, New York, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 133-135; and Worcester, Grim the Battles..., pp. 40-42 and 66.

53.  ...Family Budgets of...Cotton-Mill Workers, pp. 9-10.

54.  Worcester, Grim the Battles..., p. 67. The Worcesters were not the only ones to misunderstand Rowntree's concepts of "primary poverty" and "secondary poverty," which were actually not separate standards at different monetary levels. For what is probably the definitive explanation of Rowntree's poverty concepts, see J[ohn] H. Veit-Wilson, "Paradigms of Poverty: A Rehabilitation of B.S. Rowntree," Journal of Social Policy, Vol. 15, Part 1, January 1986, pp. 69-99.

55.  ...Family Budgets of...Cotton-Mill Workers, p. 9; cf. p. 142.

56.  ...Family Budgets of...Cotton-Mill Workers, pp. 133-135, 142 (cf. p. 148), and 233.

57.  ...Family Budgets of...Cotton-Mill Workers, pp. 142-143, 148-149, and 152-153. For both the fair standard and the minimum standard, see also Worcester, Grim the Battles..., pp. 67-78 (with minor typographical errors in the fair standard totals).

58.  Oscar Ornati (with the editorial assistance of J. Stouder Sweet), Poverty Amid Affluence[:] A Report on a Research Project carried out at the New School for Social Research, New York, Twentieth Century Fund, 1966, p. 141.

59.  ...Family Budgets of...Cotton-Mill Workers, pp. 15, 141-142, 152-153, and 237-238.

60.  ...Family Budgets of...Cotton-Mill Workers, pp. 243 (the source of the following quotations) and 245; cf. also pp. 187-188. Different immigrant groups lived in "different sections or quarters" of the city. The more recent immigrant groups could pay a lower rent for "a house...that would be equal, except in location," to a house meeting the fair standard for the earlier immigrant groups. "A fair standard of living will not compel an English family, for instance, to live in a Portuguese quarter."

61.  Worcester, Grim the Battles..., pp. 78-86. The direct quotations (from the Congressional Record of February 26, 1912) are found on pp. 81 and 82.

62.  Scott Nearing, Financing the Wage-Earner's Family[:] A Survey of the Facts Bearing on Income and Expenditures in the Families of American Wage-Earners, New York, B.W. Huebsch, 1913, pp. 61-97.

63.  Maurice Parmelee, Poverty and Social Progress, New York, Macmillan, 1916, pp. 86-93.

64.  William C. Beyer (in charge), Rebekah P. Davis (assistant), and Myra Thwing (assistant), Workingmen's Standard of Living in Philadelphia (a report by the Bureau of Municipal Research of Philadelphia), New York, Macmillan, 1919, pp. 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, and 39. This original report merely used the phrase "a fair standard of living." However, a 1921 cost update to the report specified that what was meant was a fair standard of living as the phrase had been used "[a] number of years ago [by] the U.S. Department of contra-distinction to a mere subsistence standard..." (Bureau of Municipal Research [of Philadelphia], "The Cost of a Workingmen's Standard of Living in Philadelphia at March 1921 Prices" ( Citizens' Business, No. 463), April 7, 1921, p. 3).

65.  Esther Louise Little and William Joseph Henry Cotton, Budgets of Families and Individuals of Kensington, Philadelphia (A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School [University of Pennsylvania] in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy), Lancaster, Pennsylvania, New Era Printing Company, 1920, pp. 1, 3-4, and 133.

66.  U.S. Department of Labor, Summary of the Report on Condition..., p. 385.

67.  [no author given], "Tentative Quantity-Cost Budget Necessary to Maintain Family of Five in Washington, D.C.," Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 9, No. 6, December 1919, p. 26.

68.  ...Family Budgets of...Cotton-Mill Workers, p. 142.

69.  For Nearing's background, see Fisher, "From Hunter to Orshansky..." (1997 revision), pp. 24-25.

70.  Nearing, Financing the Wage-Earner's Family..., pp. 85-87.