What's in a Name? Is Welfare a Shame? Nonprofits Urge State to Call Agency the Department of Human Services

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG -- Citing the negative connotations and stereotypes around the word "welfare," a coalition of Pittsburgh-area nonprofits is seeking to change the name of the state's Department of Public Welfare to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Advocates for the change say that only part of what the department does involves welfare in the way most people think of it - - in the form of cash assistance to the poor. More of what the agency does involves services for children such as adoption and foster care, aid for disabled Pennsylvanians, medical assistance and care for the elderly, they say. The agency also works with counties on child abuse prevention, and licenses and regulates facilities such as child care centers and personal care homes.

Five former governors -- George Leader, Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Ed Rendell -- have announced their support for the switch.

"I think that the term [welfare] has been used as shorthand for some to refer to people who are scamming the system or not doing their part to advance themselves," said Bob Nelkin, president of the United Way of Allegheny County. "I believe that Pennsylvania and the nation have reformed a lot of welfare programs so there is a lot less abuse. But there are still many people that hold the view that support of these individuals is unworthy."

The United Way, along with the Pittsburgh Foundation and a number of other nonprofits, make up the Campaign for What Works, which is leading the name change effort.

Bills to change the DPW's name have been introduced in the state House and Senate. Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, the Senate's Democratic leader and co-sponsor of one bill, said he anticipates the proposal will be adopted because of bipartisan support, the backing of the former governors and support from outside the Legislature.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. An effort to change the name during the Rendell administration failed, he believes, because it didn't have as much support as the idea does now.

Ironically, what is now considered a highly charged and negative word at one time had a very positive meaning, said Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "In the Shadow of the Poor House: A Social History of Welfare in America."

In the early 20th century, when many state boards of charities, as they were called at the time, began adopting the word "welfare" to describe their agency, the word connoted an agency that had the most advanced policies and practices in the field, Mr. Katz said.

"Welfare was a really good term," he said. "It really retained this positive [meaning] well into the 1940s." Things began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as the demographics of those receiving assistance shifted.

"It began to be women with kids," said Mr. Katz. "The demography changed, it began to be unmarried women of color. You combine that with the Cold War, and it began to have a deeply unfavorable meaning. [Welfare] has the most negative meaning of any term we have in public policy."

Most states already have taken the step of dropping the word welfare from their social service agency. Only Pennsylvania and Idaho still use the word in the name of their state human services agency, according to the American Public Human Services Association. In fact, the American Public Human Services Association itself has made the switch; it changed its name from the American Public Welfare Association in 1998. …

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