The nation's welfare system of cash assistance, for decades the core of help for mothers and children in financial distress, has become a shrunken piece of the U.S. social safety net.
State by state, welfare programs are a patchwork, with little connection between the condition of a state's economy and the number of people who have gone onto welfare.
Taken together, this new portrait of welfare answers a central question that hovered over the impassioned debate of the mid-1990s, when Congress and the Clinton administration transformed welfare from a federal entitlement into a state-run program of temporary assistance that emphasized work. How would the reshaped welfare system respond, policymakers and advocates wondered then, if the economy plunged into long, serious trouble?
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