Pennsylvania is the last state in the country to have a “Department of Public Welfare.” Idaho comes close — it has a “Department of Health and Welfare,” but 48 states have made the transition to names such as “Department of Human Services,” “Department of Children and Families,” or “Department of Human Resources.”
The word “welfare” is burdened with negative associations, but there was a time when welfare meant something positive and wholesome.
“According to the Oxford English Dictionary the original word – a state or condition of doing or being well – that’s all,” explained Dr. Alan Juffs, professor of linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh. “But now, because welfare is associated with people who are in poverty, people who are in need, something that’s undesirable, then it takes on this negative meaning.”
Juffs calls welfare’s transition from positive to negative an “interesting example of pejoration.” That is, an example of a word’s meaning becoming negative over time.
For Bob Nelkin, head of the United Way of Allegheny County, the baggage associated with the word “welfare” –- as in the Department of Public Welfare — is counterproductive when it comes to getting some lawmakers to seriously consider the agency’s purpose.
“There are a lot of things that are very valued, that the DPW does. But I think we discount them all and we say ‘must be lots of waste, fraud and abuse,’ and I’m sure there is some waste, fraud and abuse, but you can’t lump the whole department into that category of waste, fraud and abuse,” Nelkin said “When we call it welfare, it allows us to go in there, without really thinking deeply about how do you restructure it and how do you make these programs effective and efficient.”
A push to change the DPW’s name
The call to change the department’s name launched by the United Way and other nonprofits and foundations is a part of a wider effort called “The Campaign for What Works.” It seeks to have the state Legislature and governor maintain funding for social programs that have a track record of achievement. Nelkin said a name change would be symbolic.
“If it was only the name change, we’d be very disappointed,” he said. “I see three steps. Change the name; affirm the importance of what the department does; and look deeply at what works for the consumer and the taxpayer –- where you can measure success.”
A name change requires legislation, and Nelkin said the effort is gathering support from lawmakers, and in large measure from Republicans. One of the, state Rep. Thomas Murt of Montgomery County, wrote legislation to change the department’s name earlier this year, but it never came up for a vote. Murt believes the title Department of Public Welfare is inaccurate.
“When 93 percent of a department’s budget is spent on health and human services, why in the world would we still call it welfare?” said Murt. “A lot of what the department does currently is take care of children with intellectual disabilities, seniors requiring long-term nursing care, mental health issues, a wife or mother married to an abuser. This is not welfare.”
The shame factor
Murt said most people support a name change, but some conservatives argue that keeping the word “welfare” in the title shames people into getting a job. Murt disagreed.
“We’re not trying to shame anybody. Welfare was never designed to be permanent for someone who’s out of work or fallen on hard times,” he said. “The name change is also about respect, not many Pennsylvanians ever want to be on welfare -– those on it would prefer a job and respect rather than unemployment and scorn. And those who aren’t on it, don’t want to be associated with it.”
Murt proposed renaming it the Department of Human Services.
Linguist Juffs said changing the name is a chance to reset the dialogue -– but nothing is permanent.
“What will happen is over time is that ‘human services’ will be seen as something negative, something for poverty, something undesirable, and people will stop seeing the human services core meaning of human and services, and it will be associated with handouts,” he predicted. “So you’ll be in a big circle of always looking for a new word to make people feel better.”
Murt intends to reintroduce the name-change bill in the next legislative session.