Remember the theatrics over welfare reform in 1996? The image of the Cadillac welfare queen and the stories about the half million children who would be forced to live on the streets? The three Health and Human Services officials who quit after President Clinton signed the bill overhauling the welfare system?

This year, Congress is revisiting the welfare morass and deciding whether to reauthorize the sweeping Temporary Assistance to Needy Families legislation. You can already hear the buzz of stage preparations: Sixty percent of those who've left the welfare rolls are working—but only 45 percent of them are working full-time. The poverty rate among children has fallen by more than 50 percent—but fewer than 50 percent of the families leaving welfare who are eligible for food stamps get them. There's even a script for the new spectacle: The New World of Welfare, edited by Rebecca Blank and Ron Haskins, who's the current White House adviser on welfare. In this hefty tome, 54 top social scientists and policy specialists wrangle over poverty in America and the evolving shape of welfare programs.

The scientists have a lot to say. When it passed the 1996 welfare changes, Congress approved spending more than $85 million on data collection and research, and private foundations supplemented this bonanza with even more money. As a result, there's been an explosion of poverty research in the past five years. Faced with an overabundance of material, Blank and Haskins have assembled a mostly coherent portrait of contemporary welfare. Their inspired format pairs researchers of opposing ideologies in papers and responses, which sift the numbingly complex research into clear areas of consensus and contention.

Almost all of the contributors agree that the grand experiment in turning welfare over to the states and making it work-focused and time-limited has so far worked much better than liberals thought it would. (Some of the conservative authors work in a few rhetorical jabs, although most refrain.) Welfare caseloads have plunged by half, mostly because people are working. But many families aren't getting the square meals and medical help they should, and some families are clearly floundering in the new system.

The contributions of Haskins and Wendell Primus add up to a national portrait of poverty and form a singular chapter in the book. Haskins, the conservative who drafted much of the welfare reform legislation, and Primus, the liberal who resigned from HHS after Clinton signed the bill, agree, mostly, on the contours of contemporary poverty. They just disagree—respectfully—on whether that picture means welfare reform is working or not.

The book's bits of friction arise in policy arguments over what the social scientists' numbers mean. With the exception of a tangle over immigration policy, there are very few ideological skirmishes. Haskins and George Borjas both make good historical arguments for the problems inherent in granting full benefits to immigrants. Blank and Michael Fix make equally strong arguments in favor of awarding, at the very least, food stamps and Medicaid benefits to some immigrant families.

Two chapters and other comments on families and fathers—the writers include Charles Murray, Rebecca Maynard, Wade Horn, Isabel Sawhill, and Ronald Mincy—should be required reading for all participants in the reauthorization fracas about the importance of marriage. One of welfare reform's explicit goals was to promote marriage and prevent out-of-wedlock births. But because governments don't really know how to do that effectively, both the states and the feds have mostly ignored that goal in favor of the more manageable one of promoting work.

The authors here, both liberal and conservative, make a compelling case for fathers' importance to children's well-being. They make equally compelling cases that society doesn't know how to require or encourage fathers to care—most of the programs they examine don't work very well. All agree on removing the few remaining "marriage taxes" for poor families, but differ in the emphasis they put on further experimentation and further funding, as well as on how to increase fathers' employability and to decrease teen birthrates.

A list of contributors with their current institutional affiliations appears at the back of the book; brief biographies with the chapters would have been much more useful. The authors are not graduate students entering the debate: Each has a well-respected body of work, either in policy or research, and many have become identified with particular viewpoints. The first chapter, in which Blank and Haskins set out the major issues in welfare reauthorization and their own recommendations, stands out because they disclose that Blank was on Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers for three years, and that in 1996, Haskins was the staff director of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources. A summary of Susan Golonka's experience with the National Governors Association alongside her discussion of how the states have implemented the welfare law, or a description of Charles Murray's pioneering and controversial work on urban poverty, would have provided welcome context for their remarks.

Minor quibbles, though, for a book so brilliantly clear about the confusing new world of welfare.

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