The recent arrival of a new governor and departure of HRA Commissioner Verna Eggleston created an opportunity for Robert Doar, until recently the commissioner of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). Doar, 45, just left Albany and "came home," he said, to New York City, where he lived as a child when his father, John Doar, an assistant attorney general under President John Kennedy, ran an antipoverty program in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His mother still lives in Brooklyn.

A Princeton University grad, Doar's first job was working for New York City's economic development office, encouraging businesses leaving Manhattan to move to another borough rather than New Jersey. Then he worked in journalism, assisting the editor at The Washington Monthly, then being an editor himself at the Harlem Valley Times in Dutchess County, New York. He joined OTDA in the Pataki administration, serving as deputy commissioner of child support enforcement from Nov. 1995 to May 2000, when he became executive deputy commissioner. He served as OTDA commissioner from 2003 through this winter. Doar is married with four children.

On Feb. 1, Doar assumed leadership of HRA, overseeing more than 15,000 employees who deliver public assistance, public health insurance, home care for senior citizens and the disabled, food stamps, HIV/AIDS support services, homeless and domestic violence services, and more, to some three million city residents.

CITY LIMITS: In the announcement of your hiring, HRA is described as the nation’s largest municipal social services agency.

ROBERT DOAR: The way that New York state is set up, the social services are delivered through the localities. Whether it’s Dutchess County, or Wyoming County, or New York City, the bulk of the work, the real action, the real customer service, is done at the local level. And the state role is one of oversight, monitoring, cheerleading. The state does a lot with computer systems and training, sets policy sometimes, and does it in concert or in discussion with the locals, but it’s not the actual delivery of service. The delivery of service happens at the local level.

So this is much more exciting, much more challenging, much more difficult. If we don’t succeed here, then the state doesn’t succeed. The state can do lots of nice things, but they are entirely dependent on what happens at the local level. And in the state of New York, the local level, to a very large extent, is the city of New York. So this is much larger, and a lot more challenging and a sort of management task.

CITY LIMITS: Coming in, do you feel like there are some clear needs or top things to address?

ROBERT DOAR: I’m a big believer in supports for the working people, as is Mayor Bloomberg. I believe very strongly that we have a whole array of publicly funded programs that can help low-income workers move up and have greater resources and feel as if they are making it. And in New York City we want to have people of all incomes feeling like they’re part of the community. And if you have a lot of people of low incomes who don’t have these kinds of supports, they really feel disconnected from the community. So whether it’s food assistance, or food stamps, or the Earned Income Tax Credit, or child support collection, or health care coverage or HEAP, I want to make sure that we’re making our ability for folks to access those programs better. That’s my number one priority.

Now I think we do a pretty good job of that. Mayor Bloomberg’s done an outstanding job, HRA is a good agency – it’s got some issues, but Ms. Eggleston held the position longer than anybody else, and I don’t come with a big turn-the-place-upside-down reform agenda.

Another [priority] is, we’ve got to meet the work participation rates required for those who are on cash assistance. We’re required by the federal law. That’s a very, very high priority. If we fail to do so we would face significant penalties. Mayor Bloomberg believes in work first, or focusing on work, and I do too. I believe that that’s the first step out of poverty. Get a job, then we’ll help you take advantage of all these other programs. So that’s another priority.

Medicaid fraud is clearly something that has not been addressed very successfully, particularly provider fraud. We have a large role in that, due to the recent MOU [memorandum of understanding] that was signed by the mayor and Governor Pataki just before he left. And I’ve spent a lot of time already making sure that that’s set up properly, and that we have the right relationship with the state Medicaid inspector general, and the New York state attorney general’s office. So, that’s a third priority.

And then there are equally important, but maybe smaller scale, areas where I think what we’ve done in the past 10 years since welfare reform passed have not really addressed. There’s two, and they’re related, but they are not the same. One is re-entry, folks coming out of correctional facilities; I don’t think we do a very good job of making that transition successful.

And the other is young men, who are often non-custodial parents, and who are particularly, for a variety of reasons, not connected to various supports. A lot of welfare reform initiatives are centered around single moms. Good! Right? Great way to do it. They’re the ones with the kids, they’re the ones who come in and ask for cash assistance. But these guys out there, all we really do about them is chase them for child support collections, and not much else. When I was at the state, I was a strong pusher of that. I think I would be the person the most responsible for the new EITC [earned income tax credit] for non-custodial parents, besides Governor Pataki, of course. Ron Haskins [a Brookings Institution scholar] has talked about it, there’s a guy up at Columbia, Ron Mincy – it’s not like I’ve created this idea, but it’s an area we’ve got to focus more on, and I’d like to do that. So those are the main ones.

CITY LIMITS: What are you thinking about how to do that fatherhood focus here in New York City?

ROBERT DOAR: One of the findings the Commission on Economic Opportunity had is that this is an area worthy of attention and there is some money available to help us. There are programs that offer to these guys work attachment, some training, some parenting skills, child support – to help them navigate the child-support role. We want to fund those kinds of programs, we like those programs. Then the other thing is, and this is a tricky one, because the child support world takes a very strong view of arrears ... there are ways that you can lessen the monthly burden. You may not throw the arrears out entirely and say ‘Forget it, you don’t owe all that money,’ but the way you get to compliance is more gradual and more tolerable by the non-custodial parent. I think that’s something that we should explore, and we will be exploring it with the state. We need some approvals to do that. And so we’ll be working on that.

CITY LIMITS: So now, you’ll be asking the head of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance for approval?

ROBERT DOAR: Sometimes. Sometimes we’ll do it because we have the authority and sometimes we’ll need OTDA or the Department of Health or any other oversight, or the federal government. I mean, a lot of stuff we want to do on food stamps, it’s a federal program, and the federal government has to be checked with first before we can do it.

CITY LIMITS: What are some moves you’d like to make with food stamps?

ROBERT DOAR: Well, I think that we’ve already done a lot of this stuff. And I’m very proud of the state of the city’s efforts to expand access, really push the envelope given the federal rules. I think if you went and looked at all the waivers available to the states, New York, partly due to New York City and New York state together, have pushed and gotten virtually all of them.

We have a project that we worked on with Food Change that is pushing the envelope on automated access, for access outside of the offices. That’s a good thing. So I want to just make sure that those work, and that we’re continuing to do that. I believe in food assistance as a support for working people, and I think we can make the way in which people come into and get assistance better.

But everybody needs to know that sometimes, because of income standards, or federal rules, the amount of benefit that you can get is very small, and there are some application requirements. And lots of people do say, ‘That’s very nice, but I don’t want to do that for $10 a month.’ And, I can’t do anything about that, some of that is beyond my control. ...[T]he federal government ... you know, they pay 100 percent of the food stamp benefit, they have a right to say, ‘We want you to do it this way.’

CITY LIMITS: To touch back on the Center for Economic Opportunity – going forward, how do you view your relationship with this new office?

ROBERT DOAR: Very, very close. Very collaborative. I worked on, in a kind of informal way, [the CEO report] – Deputy Mayor Gibbs asked me to brief some of the members of the commission on certain issues that were important to me. The goal is obviously the right one. We want to – to the extent that there are avenues of attention that they’ve called for – we want to meet those requirements. So I think it’s good, something that we want to work very closely with.

CITY LIMITS: How is implementation of the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) regulations going to play out? Especially in terms of education and training?

ROBERT DOAR: Well, the rules are different, and they’re tougher. And the caseload reduction credit is not as generous, it starts from the new base. ... My hope and goal is to help the city achieve those participation rates given the existing rules while at the same time talking with the federal government about ways to make them less, I think, onerous. Particularly in the area of folks who have certain kinds of, not quite SSI [Supplemental Security Income], but some certain kinds of disabilities, or issues that we think are deserving of a little break while we try to work those out. That’s probably the broadest concern I have. But the rules are the rules, and we have to go forward trying to meet standards as called for. And, so, that’s going to be a struggle.

CITY LIMITS: To meet the work percentages?

ROBERT DOAR: To meet the worker participation rates. I think we can do it. I want to be clear that we can do it. I think it’s fair to say that when President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, lots and lots of really smart people said, ‘There’s no way the city of New York can do what this legislation calls for.’ And, almost everybody said, ‘There’s no way the number of people on cash assistance will drop anywhere near what it dropped.’ And it did. What I like to say is that the city has gotten used to accomplishing hard things. Whether it’s in welfare policy, or crime, or education, and we’re not going to stop thinking we can do it.

CITY LIMITS: What are some strategies or tactics to meet those requirements?

ROBERT DOAR: Well, a lot of it is all about engagement. And measurement, and constantly talking to the folks. There is a tool that is used here called Job Stat which we use to measure and set goals for individual centers, and we’re going to keep doing that. And, finding out, probing and pushing and experimenting and trying different things. Some of the things that we’ve already got in place have worked, and I think we’ll start there and go from there.

CITY LIMITS: Relatedly, the structure for education and training is different. Many people claim that higher education is the best path out of welfare dependency. What about higher education?

ROBERT DOAR: The best path is a job, and then you supplement employment with training and education, but you have to start with employment. And that’s the law of the land, that’s the focus of the state of New York, in the new administration and in the old administration, and it has been the focus of this administration. So, I’ve got to start there. If people are in employment, and meeting the minimum requirements for employment, then I’m all for trying to find ways to attach them to forms of education that can allow them to move up.

But we have to start there, there’s just no way around that. And when it was discussed, ten years ago at the state level, I remember I was with a democratic legislator from the Island, an African-American woman, who talked about how the state legislature could not get around the fact that folks who are not on cash assistance but are low-income often, because of the cost of education, combined a job and education, that’s what they do. And, to say to folks who are on welfare, ‘Well, you don’t need to do that, you get the right of education plus a welfare benefit and no work requirement,’ that is just something the state was not willing to go, and they’re still not willing to. So, we have the rules as they are, and that’s what we’re going to do.

CITY LIMITS: Talking about the mix of work and education, my understanding is that the rule right now is that a single parent has to work 30 or 35 hours a week. But apparently it could be 20 [for a single parent with a child under age six], which would allow for more time for education. Is that something that you would consider?

ROBERT DOAR: I’ve told you what are my principles: you start with work. If we can find ways to combine work with education that is consistent with federal and state rules, I have no problem with it. But you’ve got to start with work.

CITY LIMITS: OK. Housing Stability Plus. Some say there’s a huge problem [with tenants moving into apartments in poor condition].

ROBERT DOAR: All I’ll say on that is that Housing Stability Plus has, let’s not forget, it has helped thousands of people leave the shelters and get into housing. And there are people that have gone into housing using Housing Stability Plus who are now no longer [in the program], who’ve moved on. And so it had some aspects of it that were successful.

There are, I think, some issues, and we’re working with DHS and the state to think about ways to make it better. Or to change it entirely. I’m open to all ideas and we’re looking at them. ... There’s no pride of authorship in Housing Stability Plus, I promise.

CITY LIMITS: Workforce One is a big job placement program being run by Small Business Services and other partners. Do you think it might make sense for HRA to be involved?

ROBERT DOAR: I don’t know enough about it. I’ll go look into it. Obviously, HRA’s very good, it truly is very good, at helping people get into the employment world. So I’d like to find out what they’re doing that’s different. I’ll find out.

CITY LIMITS: What’s the latest with the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) and rent? (See City Limits Weekly #560, Nov. 6, 2006, Low-Income Tenants With HIV Get A Break From Federal Judge.)

ROBERT DOAR: That is very much in litigation, and you know, when we have issues that involve litigations, we don’t talk about it. And this one really fits that criteria. So I’m not going to get into that. ... The judge has issued an injunction. So we’re doing what the judge told us to do.

CITY LIMITS: So, this is your fifth day. Whether you’re here for two years or 10 years, do you feel like there are some things that you, whenever it is that you walk out of here, want to have done at HRA?

ROBERT DOAR: I want to have the ability for folks to access supports for working people to be, not seamless, because it can’t be totally seamless, but much easier than it is currently. That’s my number one objective.

And I believe that if you properly measure poverty, where you include all of the things you’ve done to address poverty, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, like the value of food stamps, like the value of health care coverage, and work, and earnings – if you do that correctly, and we do our job correctly going forward, we will make progress, important progress in reducing the percentage of children raised in households that are defined as in poverty. That’s what I would like to do.

If you look at the statistics on poverty for the state ... it’s significantly down from when we began in ’95, and I want that trend line to continue in New York City. Now, where is it over this whole period? I want to be honest, it’s down from when I started, and relative to where it’s been for the last 35 years; a little [down], but not as much. Poverty really peaked in 1994, and now it’s come down, and we want it to continue to come down.

CITY LIMITS: One last question: full-family sanctions, pro or con?

ROBERT DOAR: I don’t think it’s an issue right now. I worked for the Pataki administration, and I think that full-family sanctions, when properly implemented – and people know this about me – and with lots of sort of checks and balances, is an important tool to convey to people that the rules are the rules, with regard to certain requirements. But we don’t have it in New York, and we’re not going to have it. It’s not something that the legislature is going to do. ... I don’t think it was in the Spitzer budget. We’ve gotten along without it, and I guess we’ll just continue to get along without it and continue to do a good job.

-Karen Loew