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FAMILY SUCCESS: Doar proposed a marketing campaign that highlights the importance of work, family, and personal responsibility.
Yoon Kim
FAMILY SUCCESS: Doar proposed a marketing campaign that highlights the importance of work, family, and personal responsibility.

Powerful obscurity

Welfare | Robert Doar may not be well-known, but he made welfare reform a reality in New York City

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

NEW YORK—Robert Doar, 52, puts on a suit and leaves for work from his Brooklyn home every morning at 7:45. Sometimes he’ll walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to his office in lower Manhattan. He usually has a series of meetings, and sometimes he’ll make an appearance at an event or give a speech. Then, usually around 5:30 or 6 p.m., he’ll take the subway home.

It’s an unglamorous life, but Doar is one of the most powerful officials in New York City government. Doar, a Republican, serves as the commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), where he oversees the city’s social services and its 14,000—yes, 14,000—employees. (When I expressed awe at the number of people under him, he reminded me that New York is a city of 8 million people.) He oversees a $5 billion budget, which covers welfare benefits, food stamps, and other smaller safety net programs. The agency provides health insurance to 2.5 million people, mostly through Medicaid. HRA is the country’s largest municipal social services agency. Doar self-deprecatingly says he only got the job because the line of Republicans who want to manage social services is short.

Over Doar’s five-year tenure he has won admiration from welfare-reform advocates as he has kept welfare caseloads 20 percent below what they were when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002. A slice of the reduction in welfare recipients is probably thanks to the city’s overall increasing prosperity—home values in the city climbed 68 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to Zillow—but there’s been a recession in the midst of the increasing prosperity.(New York City’s unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, more than a point higher than the national average, even as it has added jobs furiously over the last couple of years.) Doar has also publicly and controversially insisted that healthy families—two-parent households—are key to reducing poverty.

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New York state is unique in that it delegates administration of welfare to local authorities. Under Doar, New York City has implemented big aspects of welfare reform: He has introduced anti-fraud measures, strict work requirements, and incentives for families to stay together. Child support collections have risen. The city previously paid its contracts with job placement services per head, instead of based on whether the placement services found jobs for the unemployed. Now the city pays based on job placement. HRA has helped place more than 85,000 people a year in jobs. 

Doar insists on coupling work requirements with “work supports,” so the city provides subsidies even after people find work. Doar explains the subsidies as work incentives: “If you do work, we will make your earnings go farther.” Families coming off welfare get the Earned Income Tax Credit as well as food stamp support. Accordingly, food stamp enrollment is up, even though welfare enrollment is down. The work subsidies are small commitments, he said, compared to the bigger outlays for entitlements, which he said are the real budget busters.

The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, recently honored Doar with an award for his work as a local reformer at a lunch at a club in Midtown Manhattan. The room was filled with city administrators, donors to the Manhattan Institute, and academic experts on welfare and poverty. “I like your reference to my position as a relatively obscure public official,” said Doar to America Works’ Peter Cove after he introduced Doar at the lunch. “You’re correct.” 

Obscure public officials across the country have made welfare reform successful. Since the passage of welfare reform in 1996, the number of those receiving cash welfare benefits has dropped from a monthly average of 12.3 million to around 4.3 million, as of 2010. The central change in the 1996 reform was the allocation of cash: The federal government now gives states welfare funds in block grants instead of paying them based on their caseload. So states now have the incentive to reduce the number of welfare enrollees, because they keep the money they don’t use on welfare benefits. The 1996 reforms also instituted work requirements for those receiving welfare benefits, to ensure that recipients were moving toward employment. 

Last summer the Obama administration announced that states could receive waivers from the work requirements, eliciting outrage from those who crafted welfare reform, like the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector. The administration quickly trotted out former President Bill Clinton, who signed the reform, to say that the waivers would only be issued if they required “more work, not less.” It’s still unclear how the administration’s waiver proposal will work. Doar thought the administration’s defensiveness over work requirements showed how popular welfare reform had become.

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