Mark Levitan, Who Measured the True Face of Poverty, Dies at 73
He came up with a more realistic threshold, changing the way New York City determines who is impoverished and persuading the Obama White House to follow suit.
Mark Levitan, who was instrumental in providing New York City officials with a more realistic measure of poverty, and in persuading the federal government to follow suit, died on Thursday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 73.
His son, Dan, said the cause was complications of leukemia. Dr. Levitan lived in Brooklyn.
The results of Dr. Levitan’s alternative method of measurement were nothing to boast about: In 2006, the first year that the new formula was applied, the overall poverty rate in the city leapt by more than four percentage points compared with the official benchmark, and among older people it soared to a stunning 32 percent from 18.1 percent.
But by calculating the added benefits of tax credits, food stamps and housing subsidies to poor people while also taking into account the local costs of rent, transportation, health care and child care, economists, using Dr. Levitan’s methodology, could also calibrate which anti-poverty programs were doing the most good for which group.
In 2011, for example, Dr. Levitan found that food stamps and other benefits helped keep a quarter of a million New Yorkers above the poverty threshold.
He lobbied in Washington for a similar national redefinition of poverty. While the anachronistic official standard was retained, beginning in 2011 the Census Bureau began issuing what it called a broader Supplemental Poverty Measure. Like New York City’s, the supplemental measure took into account additional factors that affected overall income, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Levitan was an improbable recruit by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Working for an unapologetic capitalist, he took a job in which he managed to practice some of what he had been preaching for most of his career as a socialist organizer and outside critic.
In his decade as a senior policy analyst for the Community Service Society, Mr. Levitan had been an outspoken champion of marginalized New Yorkers. After the 2001 recession, for instance, he pointed out that nearly half of the city’s Black men were unemployed.
Dr. Levitan joined the Bloomberg administration in 2007 as the director of poverty research for the city’s new Center for Economic Opportunity, which the mayor had established the year before to measure more precisely who needed help and why, and to design pilot programs to target those groups.
Linda Gibbs, who was Mr. Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said by email that Mr. Levitan had “created a lasting change in the conversation here in New York City, and across the country, as the work he spearheaded to change the way poverty is measured was adopted by the Obama administration.”
In keeping with a life committed to making a difference in the well-being of New Yorkers, she added, “Mark framed a clearer picture of who suffers from real deprivation.”
Mark Kenneth Levitan was born on May 12, 1948, in Manhattan to Arthur and Miriam (Orleans) Levitan. His father was a jeweler, his mother a homemaker. He grew up in Brooklyn and Teaneck, N.J.
After graduating with a degree in philosophy from Boston University in 1970, he became a factory worker, making Nerf balls near Boston and working in the Dodge automobile paint shop outside Detroit. He was also an organizer for the Socialist International and, after the Dodge plant closed, a researcher for the United Auto Workers.
In 1982 he married Gabrielle Semel, who survives him, along with their son, who is an executive vice president of BerlinRosen, a public relations firm; two grandchildren; and a brother, Donald.
After the couple moved from the Detroit area to New York, Dr. Levitan earned a doctorate in economics from the New School and joined the Community Service Society in 1997.
After he retired in 2014, he taught at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.