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Monday will mark 15 years since former President Bill Clinton signed a law that he said would end welfare as we know it. The measure was hailed as a way to get the poor into the labor force and to free them from dependence on government aid. But a new report questions how well that program worked during the recent recession. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: When President Clinton signed the new welfare law, he said it wasn't perfect but that it did provide an historic chance to fix a system that didn't work.

President BILL CLINTON: Today we are ending welfare as we know it. But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began.

FESSLER: What it was supposed to begin was a program that would get the poor working and end their sometimes suffocating reliance on public aid. But in bad economic times, it was also supposed to provide a safety net. A new study finds that, in fact, that hasn't always been the case over the past few years.

Ms. SHEILA ZEDLEWSKI (Urban Institute): We think this is really a very weak response to such a high and prolonged unemployment rate.

FESSLER: Sheila Zedlewski is with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. She notes that unemployment rates went up 88 percent during the recession. But caseloads in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program, which welfare's now called, rose by only 14 percent.

Ms. ZEDLEWSKI: And if you look across the country, states have very different experiences.

FESSLER: And in some cases the numbers are striking. While caseloads rose in most states during the recession, they actually dropped in 13. In Arizona, for example, where joblessness shot up 134 percent, the number of households getting cash assistance went down 48 percent.

Mr. RON HASKINS: On the face of it, I think it's bad. That was not the intent of the program.

FESSLER: Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution should know. He helped craft welfare reform as a lead Republican staffer on Capitol Hill.�Haskins says the program's response to the recession has raised a serious question.

Mr. HASKINS: Can we have a cash program that is pro-work and has tough work requirements, but also will help people get back on the rolls and get cash during hard times because they can't find employment?

FESSLER: He notes that other safety net programs, such as unemployment insurance and supplemental nutrition assistance, or food stamps, responded a whole lot better to the bad economy. And in fact, the huge growth in those programs is one reason that people think that welfare caseloads didn't go up more, because some struggling families were able to get help elsewhere.

Haskins also says that getting people off welfare, which was a lot easier to do in a good economy, appears to have become a goal in itself for some states.

Mr. HASKINS: On its face, caseload's low, therefore more people are working. Well, we know that's not true.

FESSLER: Still, it's made TANF a ripe target for cash-strapped states. Some have tightened eligibility requirements. Others have reduced benefits. Arizona, for example, has cut the lifetime limit for aid from five years to two. Clarence Carter runs the state's Department of Economic Security. He says that's the biggest reason for their caseload decline.

Mr. CLARENCE CARTER (Arizona Department of Economic Security): The governor and legislature want there to be an aggressive, urgent move to try to move these families who so desperately need it through the system and not have them reside in it.�

FESSLER: So his main focus now is job training and other efforts to find people work, although he admits in Arizona, as elsewhere, unemployment is still discouragingly high.�

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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