Welfare that Works: A Former Welfare Commissioner Discusses

What works in helping the poor? | VISION TALKS
What works in helping the poor? | VISION TALKS

How do we help struggling Americans rise out of poverty? In his first Vision Talk, Robert Doar, AEI's fellow in poverty studies and former New York City welf...


The welfare reforms of the 1990s brought about massive changes in our country's social safety net, and most of it for the better. After more rigorous work requirements were implemented, millions of Americans lifted themselves out of poverty. One place where this happened in a particularly extraordinary fashion was in New York City under the leadership of then-welfare commissioner Robert Doar.

In this discussion, Doar presented several important principles which guided him in carrying out his office's mission.

Those principles are: we must require work in return for assistance. We must also reward work by making low wages go farther. We must always talk about two-parent families, and the importance of mothers and fathers in the appropriate raising of children. And finally, we must be vigilant about promoting a job-producing, growing economy; low-wage jobs, middle-wage jobs, high-wage jobs providing opportunity to low income Americans.

Because of this emphasis, the welfare rolls in New York City plummeted from over 1 million, nearly 1 in 7 residents, to about 350,000 by the time he left his position in 2013. Poverty rates, especially for African-American families and for single mothers, declined as well. There's a lesson to be learned here: that emphasizing work really does work.

One of Doar's concerns is that in recent years, we've largely moved away from the emphasis on work that we had during the latte 1990s and early 2000s. Along with that, economic growth has been fairly stagnant for years.

The good news is that since last year, things have finally begun to pick up, and there is more opportunity for Americans to find work (including millions of unfilled positions). But for those still struggling to move up the socioeconomic ladder, the best thing that social welfare programs can do for them is to emphasize and reward work.