Cities and anti-poverty policy: A Q&A with Robert Doar, former New York City Human Resources Administration commissioner

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Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Before joining AEI, he was commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), the largest local social services agency in the United States. During his tenure at HRA, Mr. Doar oversaw a 25 percent reduction in New York’s welfare caseload and the transition to work of more than 500,000 public assistance applicants and recipients. In 2013, Mr. Doar received the Manhattan Institute’s Urban Innovator Award for preserving and protecting the “work first” policy as HRA commissioner. Public Sector Inc. editor Steve Eide recently interviewed Mr. Doar on the topic of addressing poverty at the local level of government. Below is an edited transcript.

EIDE: Looking out over the landscape of anti-poverty policy efforts in America, how much responsibility would you say we currently entrust to city governments in fighting poverty?

DOAR: That’s a complicated question because a lot depends on how the state structures its anti-poverty programs, whether the state administers the programs through state-run agencies, or, as we do in New York and in California, through county or city-based programs.

But the city has responsibilities over and above just their human services or social services programs. Anti-poverty initiatives can also include safe streets, better schools, low property taxes that nurture ownership. But on welfare policies, the key ingredient is work, a focus on work being the essential first step out of poverty, and then supporting work through shoring up low wages when that’s necessary.

The administration of the social services programs is different in different states, and sometimes they’re run by the state and sometimes they’re run by the city or the county. In New York City we had a very strong city government and a very strong presence in our anti-poverty initiatives. The agency I ran had 14,000 employees and a several billion dollar budget and our responsibility was to ensure that people got the kind of assistance they need and were eligible for, and that they complied with the various eligibility requirements. 

EIDE: Should we increase city governments’ role in administering welfare policy? I ask this partly because, in recent years, as the federal government’s reputation for dysfunction has grown, cities’ reputation has improved, becoming known as places where things get done, where the real action is. Do you think cities would do a better job fighting poverty if they were given more responsibility over welfare programs?

DOAR: My experience is yes. In New York City, we had a very strong city government with a lot of responsibility, and we have a very, very capable mayor. And prior to Mayor Bloomberg, we had another very capable mayor, Mayor Giuliani, who wanted to manage things, wanted to be in charge, were willing to take the responsibility for running programs. And I’m also just a general believer that the best government is the government that’s closest to the people. So, yes, I agree that cities are where the action is. It’s why I took the job at HRA. I had been at the state where’s there’s kind of an oversight and policy setting responsibility at the state Department of Social Services, but the agency that really saw clients, and worked with them every day, in hundreds of thousands, was the city agency, and I think we did a good job.

EIDE: Our federalist system has many advantages, but one disadvantage is that it can make policymaking very messy. Might increasing the local role run the risk of increasing waste in anti-poverty policy administration?

DOAR: I don’t know about that. My view on administration of anti-poverty programs is that it’s a small fraction of the actual costs. The big costs are in benefits, in the actual food stamp benefits that go out to citizens or the cost of Medicaid care, as opposed to the cost of the people that determine eligibility and guard the front door. That’s a small fraction of the cost. Frankly, I worry as there’s a movement afoot to centralize things and make it more unified and comprehensive that we will grow benefit issuances, we’ll be spending a lot more money on giving things to people. We may save some money on administration but I think the ultimate higher costs will be in a program that limits the role of the local caseworker.

I am a Republican, I believe in smaller simpler government, there’s no question about it, but in the area of anti-poverty initiatives, I also believe in engagement with clients and making sure that we’re getting the correct eligibility criteria met for any particular program, especially with regard to work requirements. And that requires an administrative force, that requires offices and people that are there to help people move into work as rapidly as possible. So this movement to make things more centralized and more comprehensive will end up being kind of an easier way to transfer a tremendous amount of assistance financially but will have no real engagement or eligibility criteria in place and I think that will not be the right relationship between government and people seeking assistance.

I should also point out—and I think it’s generally accepted wisdom—one federal program that is run by the federal government is the Social Security Administration. They run the disability programs, and I don’t think that they are as effective at engaging their clients as a local department of social services can be. So I don’t think the model there of a strong federal presence is one to necessarily follow.

EIDE: In your recent testimony before the Senate Committee on the Budget, you claimed that New York City was the only city among the nation’s 20 largest that has not seen an increase in poverty since 2001. Why do you think that was—why did it increase in these other cities and not in New York?

DOAR: A lot of factors play a role in that, and that’s one of the great things about being in public policy is that you can work on it in many, many ways and it all can come together successfully if everybody’s going in the same direction. The single-biggest factor, probably, although there are a couple, is we had a strong economy. Mayor Bloomberg spent a tremendous amount of time nurturing, protecting and supporting the economy in New York City, including and especially the part of the economy that provided entry-level jobs. So retail, hospitality, home health aides, health care, security, these are all places where people with limited skills or limited education can get a start. And that was enormously helpful to the welfare policies in New York City.

Secondly, we had a work focus. We said to people who asked for cash welfare, you need to go to work right away, we need to get you started on that right away. We were very, very aggressive proponents of President Clinton’s welfare reform insistence that assistance be based on work. That contributed a great deal. It’s just a fact that a very small percentage of people who work full-time, for a full year, are poor. And we had a lot of people working. In fact, when we left at the end of Bloomberg’s term, more people were working in New York City than ever before in its history.  We regained the number of jobs lost in the recession months and months and months before, and now have exceeded the jobs that we had at the previous peak.

So, strong economy, strong work-based welfare policies were, in my opinion, the most important, and I should say about those work-based welfare policies that they had sanctions, consequences if you didn’t comply. We cut benefits, we closed cases, we reduced benefits for people who didn’t comply. The whole focus was, let’s get to work as rapidly as possible.

And then, third, we rewarded work. We were big supporters and big proponents of what I call “work supports,” which allowed low wage workers to make a little more, to feel a little more economically secure, because the government was providing healthcare insurance, for instance, or the government was providing a food stamp benefit to allow their monthly budget to go a little further in the purchase of food for their family. Or the Earned Income Tax Credit-New York has the most generous in the country, we have both a city, state, and of course the federal EITC. So these important work supports for low income workers also made the atmosphere for a work-based welfare policy and a strong economy better.

Those are the three principal ingredients, we had other things that were going on, we had good education policies, good health policies. But the three biggest were: strong economy, work requirements in welfare policy, and work supports for those who do go to work. The modus operandi of our administration was, if you work, we want to help you, and it was very effective.

I should also just point out, separately, it was helpful that we also had good anti-crime policies that made our communities safer, and we also had lower property taxes, so homeowners could hold onto their homes and not be taxed out of them. So there are a lot of factors going on. But New York City has the lowest poverty rate for both children and adults for the eight largest cities in the country, and during that period, from 2000-2012, which was not a great time, because the economy struggled over a large portion of these years for other cities, the average increase in poverty for the other 20 cities was 36%. For New York City, it was 0. The increase for the whole of the US was 28% from 2000-2012 and ours was 0. We wish it could have gone down, but we maintained the gains that had been achieved in the wake of welfare reform, where so many single moms who had been on cash welfare and in poverty went to work and moved up from poverty.

EIDE: But it seems like another direction you could go based on New York City’s success with work first is to say, not so much that city governments can be very successful if given more freedom to maneuver with their welfare programs, but that in fact, we should implement more work first requirements at the federal level, with federal policies. Do you see that as a problem of politics or administration?  

DOAR: That’s a good point. I do think that in the last five years or so, there’s been less of an emphasis on work requirements in welfare policy from the federal government than there should have been. My view, having been in both state government and in local government, and having had lots of dealings with federal officials is that there’s a direction-setting responsibility at the federal level, and then there’s an implementation responsibility at the local level, and by and large, local officials will follow the direction provided by the federal government. Because these programs are heavily funded by federal dollars, and these are people who follow the hierarchy, who want to do what they’re told. So I think that a better direction on work-based welfare policy will lead to local administrators doing it more consistently.

The issue in New York City was that Mayor Bloomberg was strong enough and powerful enough where, if the focus from the federal government may have been lessened, he didn’t pay any attention to it. He said we’re still doing it the way I want to do it. This became very clear for instance in our anti-fraud measures, where Mayor Bloomberg was very strong on making sure that our programs were not being taken advantage of by people who might try to defraud us, even if that meant we had to require a finger image, for applicants for food stamp assistance, or do other things that may have been viewed as a slowdown in the process to make sure we were giving benefits correctly. Mayor Bloomberg was very strong on that, even when the direction from the federal government and state government was, well, lighten up on that, you’re taking too much time to determine eligibility.

So, I do think that, as a general rule, states and localities want to follow the leadership and guidance provided by the federal government. Thankfully, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg had a strong enough view of what he wanted, and directed us to be a part of that.

EIDE: How effective are county governments in New York at administering welfare programs?

DOAR: I was always a strong supporter of the county governments in the welfare policies in New York. I worked at the state. There are 58 counties in New York, some very small and some very large, so they’re different. I’ve always found that the people who work in the county offices in Tiogo County, Wyoming County, Erie County, were really good people who wanted to do the right thing for their clients and they all believed that doing the right thing for their clients was to get them into work and then support them separately, unless the person was disabled or just not able to work at all. So I am a supporter of county government.

I do acknowledge that there may be too many county governments. Gov. Cuomo’s desire to shrink the role of local governments and just make it a little more efficient, particularly in rural parts of the state, is a good idea. But by and large, in my experience, the county commissioners in local governments in the state of New York had the best sense of what their communities really needed and I would be very nervous about a more powerful Albany presence, although that is the direction they’re moving in. In the Medicaid program, we determined eligibility for the public health insurance in New York City as did all of the counties throughout the state. Gov. Cuomo, as part of his Medicaid reform efforts, is taking that over into a more centralized, more technology-focused process, like the ACA exchanges. I’m a little worried about that. I’m worried about the proper determinations of eligibility, if they will be determining if the right people are eligible for the right amount of benefit correctly, and I’m worried about it just being so far removed from the people that customer service and accessibility will be lost as well. But it is the direction and there are arguments for it.

But I would just say one more point on that. Medicaid is hugely expensive in New York State. In New York City it was $30 billion, compared to cash assistance which was $1 billion. So it’s a huge expenditure, the vast majority of which goes to health care providers, only a tiny fraction goes to the administration of the program at the local level to determine eligibility. So I don’t think we’re going to save a lot of money in this movement towards more centralized administration of the Medicaid program, at least in administration. And I hope we don’t lose the strength of the local presence in the process.

EIDE: New York City’s current Mayor de Blasio differs from his predecessors in that he has been more likely to frame his challenge as one of addressing “inequality” rather than “poverty.” What are your thoughts on trying to reduce inequality at the local level?

DOAR: Well I just don’t think he has the ability to move that needle very much, and he knows it, and he shouldn’t be promising something that he can’t deliver on. I should also say that there is some concern that efforts that he will make will harm our economy, and therefore make people poorer. There will be fewer jobs, and less economic opportunity in the city. So I’m concerned about it. The person elected on the Republican line in New York City was elected 5 times in a row-20 years. So there was definitely, just from the way in which the ebb and flow of politics goes, there was going to be a new direction after this election. And of course only a small fraction of the registered voting populace participated. But having said all that, I think there’s an overpromise in what he’s talking about and I have a real concern about the effect of his policies on the economy, that will then accrue to doing damage to low income New Yorkers.

I should also point out that there’s a very strong study that just came out from Harvard University and Berkeley professors that looked at upward mobility, in the cities around the country, and found that New York City does pretty well, actually very well, compared to most cities in the country. I think that New York City under Mayor Bloomberg and still today, is an extremely vibrant place where lots of people come for opportunity, and that vibrancy and that attractiveness has led to really a great city, the greatest city in the world, and I hope that we can keep it that way.