Skip to main content


Powerful obscurity

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

Powerful obscurity

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

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.

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.

“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 is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.