She attended Hunter College High School, and received an Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and statistics from Hunter College in 1935.
Orshansky continued graduate studies in economics and statistics at the Department of Agriculture Graduate School at American University. In 1939, Orshansky 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 United States. Department of Agriculture. Where she spent the next thirteen years as 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, Orshansky developed the official measurement of poverty used by the United States. government (see Poverty in the United States).
She used 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. Her retirement came in 1982.
Orshansky was hospitalized in the autumn of 2001, and a legal battle ensued over her care.
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 District of Columbia. The judge was overruled on appeal, and Orshansky died in Manhattan several years later. Orshansky"s development of the Poverty Thresholds was a plot element in an episode of the United States television program The West Wing.
In the episode "The Indians in the Lobby," the federal government was considering a reclassification of poverty that would have made use of a new formula to add four million additional citizens to the category. Orshansky, a native-born United States. citizen, was characterized incorrectly in the show as an Eastern European immigrant who created a United States "cost of living formula.. based on life in Poland during the Cold War.".