Politics & Policy

Working in the City

Robert Doar
Effective welfare-reform strategies incentivize work in return for benefits.

Many of us don’t think enough about our responsibilities as neighbors, Robert Doar says in a new interview with National Review Online.

Doar is former commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, which he recently described in the pages of NR as “one of the most conservative and successful welfare offices in the country from 1995 until this past December.” Now Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Doar is one of the featured authors (along with NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru) in a new free e-book, Poverty in America — and What to Do About It.

He discusses what works to bring people out of poverty with Kathryn Jean Lopez, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. (For more on what Doar thinks about Paul Ryan’s poverty plan, see NRO’s “The Agenda.”)

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s missing most from conversations about inequality today?

ROBERT DOAR: What’s missing is a focus on the true needs of the poor. To me, the conversation about inequality is too often one about the difference between the middle class and the very rich — or really the gap between the middle class and the very, very rich. Too little attention is given to choosing which policy is in the best interest of those at the bottom. In New York City, where I spent seven years running the city’s welfare program, we were aware that due to the presence of some very, very wealthy people, there was a large gap between the middle and the very top. But we also had more success fighting poverty than all of America’s largest cities, all of which had less inequality. And we were aware that our ability to pay for programs for the poor and other city services was enhanced by the presence of the very wealthy.

I also never felt in my conversations with recipients of assistance that they really cared about the gap between themselves and the rich. They were much more focused on their own situations. As long as they could work, afford their rent, and live in a clean and safe neighborhood with improving schools, they could care less about the very rich.

LOPEZ: What does a “conservative social-justice agenda” look like and why is that phrase important to us as Americans and people of good will?

DOAR: I am actually not a big fan of the term “social justice” because it implies that our nation’s efforts to help the poor should be about rights and laws when I think we really need to focus on economic opportunity, on government assistance which rewards employment and the obligations of individuals and families to accept some personal responsibility for their fortunes. I also think conservatives have to keep talking about families being at the center of helping people escape poverty and reminding people of the extent to which being raised in a single-parent family leads to children starting three paces behind the starting line.

The real answer to your question is that it is imperative that conservatives have a social-policy agenda which they talk about and emphasize as being a much better way to help the poor than the alternatives proposed by the Left. You can’t fight bad ideas without ideas of your own.

LOPEZ: What was it about your father and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department that got you doing what you’ve spent a lot of time doing: working in government trying to help struggling Americans?

DOAR: I think my father’s experience showed that government action can make our country better. That doesn’t mean it always will — or that it will be successful even most of the time — but it can be, and that made me positive about working in politics and government.

LOPEZ: Robert Kennedy was a friend of your father’s. How do you remember him?

DOAR: Not at all. I don’t believe we ever met. But I do think Robert Kennedy was a much more practical and tough minded politician than he is sometimes portrayed.

#page#LOPEZ: This spring you wrote in NR:

Welfare-caseload declines, work-rate increases, and child-poverty declines all happened largely because, for eight years under Mayor Giuliani and twelve years under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City required welfare applicants and recipients to work, or look for work, in return for benefits. We aggressively detected and prevented fraud and waste (although we didn’t stop all of them); and we enforced these requirements with a vigilance that every day led to hundreds of case closings and welfare-grant reductions as we made clear that welfare came with responsibilities.

Make no mistake about it: My fellow city workers and I were bureaucrats. But we were bureaucrats on a mission to bring the principles of the 1996 federal welfare-reform legislation to New York City in a way that would help poor New Yorkers improve their station in life. It turns out that, once given the right direction, bureaucrats can accomplish big things.

Is there a lesson there for conservatives about how we approach size-of-government discussions?

DOAR: Yes. Conservatives need to get their head around the fact that our government-spending problem is caused by the size of our transfer payments (Social Security, food-stamp benefits, refundable tax credits) and the cost of health care (Medicaid and Medicare). Our spending problem is not caused by the fact that we have too many government workers. Now I am not saying that the size and cost of government bureaucracies are not a problem, but I am saying that the much bigger problem is the cost of benefits and health care.

LOPEZ: Since joining the think-tank world, have you had the opportunity to discover more success stories you want to encourage policymakers to learn from and other groups or programs you’d hold up for support?

DOAR: I have tried and I have visited some nice programs in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Detroit, but I have to say that I have been disappointed by the extent to which people who are running programs do not always have good measures that prove their success. There are a lot of good efforts and nice stories but not enough statements like this: “As a result of our program, the percentage of men in this community who are between the ages of 20 and 27 and who are working full time rose from 45 percent to 55 percent.” In order to prove that a program is really working, you need to have good data. I still see lots of places where such measures are absent.


LOPEZ: Is it a dangerous temptation for a conservative to think more about the responsibility of the poor than his own responsibility toward his neighbor? Has that played out in a recklessness in policy?

DOAR: Liberals think too much about the responsibility of government, while many people — liberals and conservatives — don’t think enough about their responsibility as a neighbor. One of my favorite American leaders was the former senator from Missouri, Jack Danforth. He was both a senator and an ordained Episcopal priest who could talk and work on policy with the best of them, but on the way home from the office he would stop to bring communion to elderly and frail people in the hospital or who were unable to get out of their homes. Senator Danforth was a great combination of statesman and good neighbor as well as a great father and husband.


LOPEZ: You’ve also written that “Computers are great at sending money to an EBT card; they are not so good at saying, ‘You need to get a job.’” Why is this so important to point out?

DOAR: The more we reduce the relationship between the government welfare office and the recipient of assistance to a computer transaction, the more benefits and dependency will rise and employment among recipients will drop. I can’t believe that is what we want.


LOPEZ: Is there such a thing as compassionate enforcement?

DOAR: Yes. Of course. It is very easy to always say “yes” to applicants for government assistance but by not enforcing rules, setting standards and holding people accountable you will be enabling dysfunction and that will be harmful to the people and communities you are trying to help. I don’t particularly like saying these things and sounding like such a scold, and given the advantages I have had, I know I appear very uncool — but I found in New York that it really was the best way to help people improve their lives.


#page#LOPEZ: You said at an AEI forum earlier this year: “It is a common desire to promise an outcome, to guarantee that we will — if we do this, we will guarantee people’s rising safely into the middle class. Governments can’t promise that. They can’t guarantee that. People make that happen. People make that happen if the environment is created for that to happen.” So what’s the environment?

DOAR: The environment is a growing, vibrant economy and government assistance programs which require work in return for assistance and reward work if wages do not go far enough to support a family. Government assistance programs which provide assistance as an entitlement with no focus on work will very quickly create a bad environment.


LOPEZ: In his introduction to AEI’s poverty e-book, Arthur Brooks points out that “the number of Americans receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as food stamps) has increased by almost 50 percent since January 2009, from 32.2 million to 47.7 million. One in six citizens in the richest country in the world now rely on food aid from their government.” Is that a moral crisis? Can we reform that in a humane way?

DOAR: I think the high number of people on food stamps is a sign of both an economic crises and well-intentioned policies that are keeping people from working to the extent that is best for them and their families. And it certainly is changeable — we need better policies that promote economic growth and job creation, not ones that discourage them. We also need to bring a greater emphasis on work to the Food Stamp Program.


LOPEZ: Having worked in city government under Mike Bloomberg, what are your insights into the worldview on some of the things — life, liberty, and happiness, family and the good — the government promotes in public schools?

DOAR: Mayor Bloomberg was a great mayor because he was a very good manager. His worldview is totally informed by numbers and measures, and he was always asking what the numbers say about your performance as an agency. He believed in work and in expecting personal responsibility. He also was a firm believer in the work-based welfare policies of welfare reform that were first implemented under Mayor Giuliani and my predecessor, Jason Turner. I remember soon after I got there someone from his close staff giving me a speech he had made endorsing all of those policies. I always kept that speech close to me.

Mayor Bloomberg did not want to tell just welfare recipients how to care for themselves; he wanted to push all of us to better decisions. Some people think of that as being heavy handed; I prefer to call it leadership. But I can understand how it might get under the skin of people who just want to live free and don’t ask for anything from government.


LOPEZ: How do religious faith and faith-based groups play into helping people out of poverty, in your experience?

DOAR: My own religious faith is important to me and I know it plays a role in making me want to participate in public policy. I believe strongly that faith helps many people in their day-to-day lives, including helping people escape poverty. And faith-based groups can help as well, but they do not have the capacity to do the whole job.


LOPEZ: What’s been most disappointing about the new mayor of New York? Does anything encourage you?

DOAR: I am disappointed that they are moving away from policies that required work and effort from recipients of cash welfare, but I am encouraged by the strength of New York and New Yorkers. The city just has so many advantages now — from a stronger, more diverse economy and terrific housing stock (though not enough of it) to good transportation, better schools and revitalized neighborhoods. It will take a long time to undo the benefits of twenty years of good leadership in City Hall.


LOPEZ: What have you learned about human nature in your work overseeing social services? What do you love and hate about your work?

DOAR: I really loved the people I worked with in the New York City Human Resources Administration. 15,000 city workers, the majority of whom were black or Hispanic — but very diverse as well in all kinds of ways — most of whom were probably Democrats but for a long time and in many ways, they rallied around a set of policies that set standards and expectations for people seeking assistance. We asked a lot but we (or I should say they) also provided more assistance to more people than any other institution in New York.

I don’t hate anything about the work I do. Really.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA

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