Fifteen years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform -- also known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program -- into law. The obvious post to write today is, “is it working?” But that raises the question: what do we mean by “working”?

If welfare reform was meant to cut the rolls, then it definitely worked:


And if it was meant to give states the flexibility to cut their spending on the program, it definitely worked:


If you think the point of the program is to help the poor, then no, welfare reform is not working. As Jake Blumgart writes at The American Prospect, the reformed program “has failed to cushion the neediest through recessions. While in 2009 the food-stamp program responded to the increased need for government assistance, growing by 57 percent, the number of TANF caseloads merely inched upward...At the heart of the worst recession in 80 years, TANF funds only reached 4.5 million families, or 28 percent of those living in poverty. By contrast, in 1995, the old welfare system covered 13.5 million families, or 75 percent of those living in poverty.”

Another possible definition of “working” is that the program has helped or forced a lot of low-income Americans, and particularly single mothers, find jobs. In the late-1990s, when the labor market was very tight, there’s strong evidence that welfare reform was helpful in pushing people into the job market. In the Aughts and, in particular, since the recession has hit, it’s a lot less clear that welfare reform is increasing employment rather than simply limiting support for the unemployed. As Ron Haskins, a Brookings scholar who helped craft the legislation, argues in this interview, “during the recession, people expected that when it was toughter to find a job...the rolls would build up. They haven’t. It makes you wonder exactly why, and what we should do about it.”