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
"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
"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. …