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Powerful obscurity

"Powerful obscurity" Continued...

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

“I believe that the welfare reform policies that were implemented in 1995, 1996, and 1997 were the most significant social policy change in America since the civil-rights movement,” said Doar. 

That is an especially meaningful statement because of Doar’s roots. He is the son of John Doar. “The John Doar?” said one person when he spotted the elder Doar at the luncheon honoring his son. John Doar was assistant attorney general at the Justice Department in the 1960s overseeing civil-rights cases. He successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for murders of civil-rights demonstrators before a white jury. He escorted James Meredith to the University of Mississippi several times until the school accepted Meredith as its first African-American student. And John Doar oversaw enforcement of the Voting Rights Act when it went into effect in 1965. 

Robert Doar demurs from drawing any parallel to his father’s work—he says he’s just continuing his father’s legacy of public service. Working for the government “is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Doar was born in Washington, D.C., but his family moved to Brooklyn when he was young, and he considers Brooklyn home. He attended Princeton University where he studied American history, then he became an editorial assistant at The Washington Monthly, then moved to work for a local newspaper in upstate New York where he got to know Gov. George Pataki. He became a local bank manager, then in 1995 joined Pataki’s administration working on social services. He worked his way up to be the state’s social services commissioner, and implemented welfare reform at the state level.

When federal welfare reform became law in 1996, conservatives like Rector at the Heritage Foundation urged the federal government to recognize the importance of marriage in solving poverty. Rector, who helped craft the legislation, still thinks federal benefits incentivize single motherhood over marriage. 

Broken families are a central feature in poverty. Seventy-one percent of low-income families are headed by single parents, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Heritage Foundation. For families with children that live above the poverty line, the numbers reverse: 73 percent are married.

Doar, a practicing Catholic with a wife and four children, thinks the absence of fathers in families in New York is a huge factor in poverty, and he thinks public discourse avoids the topic.

“The media can’t seem to ask their subjects the important question: 

Where is the father?” he said. Doar’s administration has increased child support collections, but has also pressured absent fathers to be emotionally involved in their children’s lives through marketing campaigns and city-sponsored parties. He has also pushed for a marketing campaign in the city that highlights the consequences of having a baby out of wedlock, but he said there was “discomfort” with the idea in the agency.

“It’s not the same level of consensus as anti-obesity or anti-smoking,” he said. But on March 3, his plan came to life: The city posted a slew of ads in subways and bus shelters across the five boroughs. The ads aren’t explicitly about marriage, but explain the consequences of single teenage motherhood. One of the posters reads: “If you finish high school, get a job and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.” Another poster says, “Are you ready to raise a child by yourself? 90 percent of teen parents don’t marry each other.”

New York City’s Planned Parenthood condemned the ads, saying without a hint of irony that they created “hostility” toward teen pregnancy. Planned Parenthood further rejected the connection between teen pregnancy and poverty. I had my own question for Doar: Would an ad campaign showing the consequences of pregnancy encourage abortion? “I do worry about that,” said Doar. “But I don’t think it will communicate that.” He said the campaign would offer a picture of the “consequences of households where there aren’t two parents.”

Doar understands that the “cultural forces” are strong against marriage and childbearing, but he sees his daily meetings and programmatic changes, however boring, as baby steps in the right direction. He resents that Democrats have the reputation as the party that cares for the poor, when he thinks his agency’s emphasis on work, family, and “personal responsibility” has brought more people out of poverty. Even as a Republican, he thinks government’s work in this area can be valuable: “I do feel there is a role for an effective government in America,” he said. “I much prefer city government. You’re just a lot closer to the people. This is where the action is.” 

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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