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How to slash the U.S.’s $1 trillion welfare bill

Shawna Ohm

You’ve probably heard the $1 trillion dollar number bandied about in debates over welfare and the status of poverty in this country.

According to reports, the United States (federal, state and local governments) spends about $1 trillion dollars on welfare programs aimed at helping the poor.

The current poverty rate in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau, was 47 million people in 2012 – which works out to about 15% of the population.

Some 46 million people in the U.S. are using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). There are 1.8 million families receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

Robert Doar, former commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, administered welfare programs to New York’s neediest during the height of the Great Recession.

In that roll, he made controversial moves that helped New York slash the number of people on welfare from more than 1 million to fewer than 350,000.

In a paper for the American Enterprise Institute – a conservative think tank – Doar outlines some of the difficult lessons he learned about how to tackle welfare, and what the nation as a whole could learn from his experience reforming New York's welfare programs under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The biggest lesson, he says, is that people need to take responsibility for their own future. That means social workers need to resist the urge to take credit for their clients' success, and it means welfare recipients need to get a job.

“It makes... their lives just much more productive,” he said. “It also brings greater income into their household.” Asked what people should do when they can't find a job, Doar said his department put people in programs that mirrored the rigors of work, and that helped create a schedule and a mindset that prepared them for work and gave them the confidence to believe they could do a job.

Two-parent solution

During his time in New York, Doar also took several controversial steps, including promoting two-parent homes on ads in the subway, emphasizing the positive impact two-family households have on children and, subsequently, on the economy as a whole.

"Children raised in two-parent, married families do better," says Doar. "They do better in school; they have less involvement with the criminal justice system; they’re less likely to be on welfare."

He says the goal of the ads was to educate teenagers and others about some of the harsh realities associated with raising a child in a single-parent household.

Enforcing rules, he says, is also important. For example, when legal immigrants receive welfare, they often have an American-citizen sponsor that is responsible for reimbursing the government for any welfare money spent. Doar wants sponsors held accountable for that money, and says often people will pay, if only you ask.

He acknowledges that Medicaid is the single-biggest expense the government pays tied to poverty, but is quick to point out that money spent on Medicaid goes to insurance companies, not the poor.

Doar is also not afraid to question some current policies. 

In his chapter in AEI’s “Poverty in America,” Doar writes, “Given [New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s] support for policies such as paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage – both of which make workers more expensive for businesses to employ – I am doubtful that job growth will remain as strong as it has been. As a result of these changes, the number of people classified as poor may grow in New York City.”

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