New York City’s welfare system is managed out of a boxy 25-story office building on Water Street in Lower Manhattan. Approximately 5,000 employees work there, directing government programs that provide billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded assistance to the poor and near-poor. A solid majority of the workers at 180 Water Street are African-American or Latino; their voter registration is almost certainly overwhelmingly Democratic; and all but about 300 of them are union members. But from 1995 until this past December, the people who worked in New York’s principal social-services agency were leading one of the most conservative and successful welfare offices in the country.
I witnessed it firsthand. From early 2007 until the end of 2013, I was the commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), the agency with the 1960s-era name that occupies 180 Water Street. And before 2007, going back to early 1996, I worked at, and for a time led, the state agency that was responsible for overseeing many of the government-assistance programs administered by the city. But while my perspective is that of an insider, the facts speak for themselves: From 1995 until the end of 2013, New York City’s cash-welfare caseload shrunk from almost 1.1 million recipients to less than 347,000 — a drop of more than 700,000 men, women, and children.