Fighting Poverty the Bloomberg Way – Robert Doar, American Enterprise Institute

I spent seven years running New York City’s welfare programs for former mayor Michael Bloomberg, and as proud as I was of what our social service programs provided to poor New Yorkers, I never forgot that the key to helping struggling families was a vibrant economy that offered an abundance of entry-level jobs. That’s why I was always first in line to support and encourage every kind of thoughtful economic development idea that promised job creation. Thankfully, we had a mayor who agreed.

At no time was that more apparent than in the period after the Great Recession, when New York City bounced back far faster than the rest of the country. In fact, by the end of 2013, the city had gained back 300 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, while the nation as a whole was still struggling to regain all the lost jobs. And New York City’s job growth was city wide: growth in the outer boroughs was twice the rate of Manhattan’s.

Combine that strong economy with welfare programs that both require and reward work and you have a recipe for dramatically reducing the number of people on cash welfare. On the day Mayor Bloomberg left office, cash welfare was down 25 percent from when he took office, and down more than 70 percent from the peak welfare use in 1994 before the Giuliani administration started imposing work requirements in welfare.

But being off cash welfare is not the same as being off all government-provided assistance. Mayor Bloomberg was a big proponent of what he called “work supports,” such as public health insurance, the earned income tax credit, and childcare assistance. He never apologized if wages from work were less than $10 per hour, as they frequently were for entry-level posts, because he knew that these government-provided supports made the total return for work significantly higher than what the wage alone provided. And he also recognized the human and community benefits of being employed over being idle. “Every job is a step up from unemployment,” he would say.

Nurture a job-producing economy and require work in welfare, but also reward work with earnings supplements that make wages go further. Those were the mantras of the Bloomberg welfare program, and as a result we were more successful at helping poor residents than most large cities. Among America’s 20 largest cities, between 2000 and 2012 — roughly the period of Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms — New York was the only city that did not experience an increase in poverty. The increase in poverty rates in the other large cities ranged from 3 percent in El Paso, TX, to 88 percent in Indianapolis, IN, with an average poverty rate increase of 36 percent. During that same time period the poverty rate of the United States as a whole increased 28 percent, while New York City’s poverty rate remained flat.

Mayor Bloomberg was never satisfied. He always wanted to do better and pushed other agencies in the city to help too. But his approach — nurturing a strong economy, insisting on work requirements in return for welfare, and offering generous work supports — is the right way to lift Americans out of poverty.

Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. From 2007 to 2013 he was the commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, the city’s principle social services agency with responsibility for administering the major anti-poverty programs. Previously he had been the commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance in the administration of Governor George Pataki. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and has a degree in History from Princeton University.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.