What New York City can teach America about fighting poverty

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Article Highlights

  • NYC poverty lessons: Always promote personal responsibility.

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  • NYC poverty lessons: Work is better than training and education.

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  • NYC poverty lessons: Reward work with generous work supports.

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  • NYC poverty lessons: Promote two-parent, married families.

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It may seem odd, given the generally liberal politics of the workers there (not to mention the city itself), but for the past 20 years, the employees of New York City’s welfare office were some of the strongest proponents of work over welfare in the country.

Their efforts led to a 70 percent reduction in welfare recipients; large increases in work rates for never-married mothers (the very women who used to be on welfare); and significant reductions in child poverty. I know because I spent the last 18 years working with welfare administrators in New York City.

In a piece for the most recent issue of National Review, featured on the homepage today, I recount ten of the lessons I took from that work. A few of them:

Always promote personal responsibility:

Government workers and programs can help, but the essential first step to conquering poverty is the recipients’ acknowledgment that their actions are the key to success.

Work is better than training and education:

While offering training and education may sound nice, people who come to welfare offices want to work — for pay. Often school was not such a great experience for welfare applicants, and study after study has shown that rapid attachment to paid employment is more successful at helping people obtain a lasting job than placing them in extended education programs.

Reward work with generous work supports:

Sometimes wages do not go far enough in helping a family to get above the poverty line. That’s why government-funded “work supports” — food stamp benefits, public health insurance, and refundable tax credits — are needed and should be supported to help struggling Americans stay employed.

Promote two-parent, married families:

Outcomes for children are likely to be better if they are raised in two-parent married households. Government leaders should not be afraid to say that and say it often. Young people do listen and the dramatic reduction in the teen-pregnancy rate shows that public messaging about an issue can lead to changing behaviors.

Always cheer for the economy:

By far the most disappointing aspect of the stalled recovery is that it has hurt the poor. Less than 3 percent of full-time, year-round workers are poor. A vibrant economy is the main reason New York City has the lowest poverty rate among America’s eight largest cities. People who work in social services need to be much more vocal about getting our economy going again in order to help the people they care most about.

There were other lessons, but these five are the most important. Government efforts can help struggling Americans move up and are worth pursuing — but it is also true that welfare offices based on welfare rights and entitlement will not succeed and can, in fact, increase poverty. Given the “progressive” ideology of Bill de Blasio, New York’s new mayor, I am afraid that could be where the city is headed — to increases in poverty caused by policies that sound nice, but won’t be successful at getting people jobs.

— Robert Doar is the Morgidge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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