As much as people pretend otherwise, names matter. If William Shakespeare’s “rose by any other name would smell as sweet” were altogether true, corporations would not spend small fortunes on consultants to pick just the right name for their products to maximize sales.
Which brings us to Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare. A campaign is underway to consign the old name to the trash heap of history, as has been done in most states. Only Pennsylvania and Idaho retain the word “welfare” in the state agency that administers it. Elsewhere the agencies changed their names decades ago.
Pennsylvania should follow suit. The United Way of Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh Foundation and other prominent nonprofits are championing the effort, which has found support in Harrisburg, where bills have been introduced to change the name to the Department of Human Services. Five former governors — George Leader, Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Ed Rendell — support the change.
Certainly, the word “welfare” has been demagogued to such an extent that deserving people down on their luck are stigmatized if they apply for the benefit. But the best argument for renaming the agency the Department of Human Services is that the word welfare doesn’t come close to reflecting the department’s mission. A declining number of the agency’s clients receive cash assistance.
DPW provides services for children such as adoption and foster care. It gives aid for disabled Pennsylvanians, medical assistance and care for the elderly. It also regulates facilities such as child care centers and personal care homes.
Once again Pennsylvania finds itself behind the times — and that’s a shame. What’s in a name? Plenty.