By Amy Worden
The name Department of Public Welfare was no doubt seen as an improvement when the state came up with it nearly a century ago, merging two older offices -- the Board of Charities and the Committee on Lunacy.
But now, 90 years later, Pennsylvania is one of just two states in the nation that still use the word welfare in the name of the massive agency that serves mainly the elderly, disabled, and children.
Legislators, former state officials, and advocates for the more than two million residents who rely on the agency's vast array of services say it's time to scrap that word.
"The name needs to be changed," said State Rep. Thomas Murt (R., Montgomery), who is sponsoring a House bill that would change the name to Department of Human Services. "Nobody uses Department of Public Welfare anymore."
A similar bill was introduced last week in the state Senate by Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery) and Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny).
"The current name is both misleading and stigmatizing," said Mensch, whose district includes portions of Bucks, Lehigh, and Northampton Counties as well as Montgomery. "Taking care of our neighbors with physical or intellectual disabilities is not welfare - it's a societal responsibility."
Supporters have rounded up bipartisan star power to back the bill: all five surviving former Pennsylvania governors - Democrats Ed Rendell and George Leader and Republicans Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, and Dick Thornburgh - signed a letter of support for the name change, along with six former DPW secretaries.
"Words matter. Names matter. Stigma lasts," their letter said. "These should be reasons enough for Pennsylvania to change the name of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare."
The County Commissioners Association - whose members run counties that universally use human services to describe programs - also recently announced support for the legislation.
"The word welfare has been used and abused in many areas around the state. It's a whole lot easier to cut welfare than human services," said John Denny, consultant to Campaign for What Works, a state coalition of 60 social-services groups formed last year to advocate for lower-income and disabled populations.
"When you look at what the DPW does, any reasonable person would see that welfare is not cash assistance, it's long-term care for elderly, it's people with disabilities."
Indeed, there is very little direct cash aid to individuals anymore.
As part of his efforts to curb costs in the multibillion-dollar agency, Gov. Corbett eliminated general-assistance funding last year that helped low-income adults pay rent and buy food.
The administration also removed tens of thousands of children and working adults from health-insurance programs and imposed controversial asset tests to screen applicants seeking food stamps.
Denny said having welfare in the name of the agency that accounts for more than a third of the state's spending - $11 billion of the proposed $28 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 - has made it harder to advocate for protecting DPW's wide array of services to Pennsylvanians with mental or physical disabilities or other needs.
Denny and others say the word too easily evokes a stereotype of lazy people seeking handouts.
"If you lump everything into welfare," he said, "it's hard to start a serious discussion."
Carey Miller, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said officials don't necessarily oppose the change but do have concerns about the costs of a transition.
A 2010 legislative estimate put the cost of a name change at $500,000. DPW's more recent internal analysis projected it to be anywhere from $7 million to $8 million.
"We certainly don't think that a name change for the department is a bad idea," Miller said. "However, we feel the timing isn't quite right when we are trying to focus limited resources on addressing the wait lists for intellectual disabilities and older Pennsylvanians."
Almost all other states have stripped welfare from their social-services agencies' names over the years. New Jersey is one of several with a Department of Human Services. Maryland has a Department of Human Resources; Delaware's agency is called Delaware Health and Social Services.
Besides Pennsylvania, only Idaho still uses welfare in the department's title.
Tom Shanahan, spokesman for Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare, said the idea of a name change was discussed several years ago but was deep-sixed because of costs.
"We'd like to replace it if we could," he said. "Within the Division of Welfare, we call the program 'self-reliance' - because there is so much an emphasis on that."
In Harrisburg, even the name of the committee that has voted on Murt's bill reflects changing perceptions. The measure passed, 18-6, last month - in the House Human Services Committee.
Murt, a four-term Republican from Hatboro, said members who voted against it - all fellow Republicans - told him they did so because of concerns about costs of printing new stationery and signs, as well as name changes that would be needed in the department's computer system.
The legislature is conducting a fiscal analysis before the bill moves to a floor vote, he said.
Miller suggested that every dollar spent on changing the department's name was "one less dollar for those who utilize DPW benefits."
Murt said he had addressed that issue by writing language into his bill to allow for a gradual transition that he said would, in the end, be cost-neutral.
"I understand the only objection my colleagues have is cost, and I've addressed that," he said. "Stationery and other documents would be used until they run out. Signage would be changed when it wears out."
Stephen Drachler, executive director of United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania who, a decade ago, was spokesman for then-House Republican leader John Perzel, said the name change had been discussed for decades.
"There just was never the impetus to make the change, but times change," he said. "People have fears about the cost, but I think it will be significant when the secretary of human services goes to speak before a large audience. That's more important than stationery."
©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer