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.
"Pennsylvania stands out," as a state still using the word welfare, said Liz Schott, an expert on welfare reform and senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Many state agencies changed their name decades ago.
Ohio's Department of Public Welfare became the Department of Human Services in the early 1980s, for much the same reasons being discussed in Pennsylvania now, recalls Joel Potts, director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors' Association.
"We wanted to get away from and change the view that this was a welfare agency. I think in a lot of [ways] it has worked," he said. The agency became the Department of Job and Family Services around 2000.
"They wanted to emphasize the job piece of what we do. ... We have very few people on cash assistance anymore," Mr. Potts said.
Pennsylvania's acting DPW secretary, Beverly Mackereth, has said she agrees with the principles behind the name change but believes the move would be too costly at a time when the commonwealth is striving to save taxpayer dollars, said Donna Kirker Morgan, a spokesman for the agency.
Advocates for the change say the switch is affordable; they point to an estimate from similar legislation introduced several years ago that found the cost would be about $500,000 for overhauling items such as stationery, employee ID badges and program materials.
Mr. Nelkin argued that the price tag could be phased in over several years rather than being carried out all at once. He also pointed out name changes have happened before; the former Office of Mental Retardation is now the DPW's Office of Developmental Programs. The federal government changed the name of the food stamp program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP in 2008, also in an effort to combat stigma.
"We think that's a terrific idea [to change the name]. If it was up to me, we'd call it The Department for Helping People," said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh anti-hunger group that has a contract from the state agency to help people enroll in the food stamp program. "I think changing the name correctly reflects what the department does."
But will changing the name on the side of a building or a website truly alter the public's perception of assistance programs?
"I think it will help," said Mr. Regal. "I'm not so naive as to think it will de-stigmatize welfare ... those judgments will still be out there and those false stereotypes will still be out there. But changing the name does send the right message."
Ms. Schott said it is unfortunate the word has developed such a pejorative meaning.
"Welfare, the word, should mean 'well-being.' Looking out for someone's welfare. That is the core of what it intended to be. It is unfortunate that the reality is it has become such a negative term."
Mr. Katz said it makes sense for advocates for the poor -- or other groups who receive services from the agency such as children, the elderly and disabled -- to push for the change.
"Anything that carries the label 'welfare' in this country right now and for the foreseeable future is going to raise negative images in people's minds. So it's probably best to find a new name."
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 717-787-4254 and on Twitter: @KateGiammarise.