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.