Removing the Stigma of “Welfare” – An Op-Ed by Senators Bob Mensch and Jay Costa

Harrisburg – The term “welfare” is defined as the general well-being of an individual or group of individuals.  However, when used in association with government services, the term has unfortunately developed a negative connotation.

One state agency that suffers from the use of the term “welfare” is the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.  Despite its name, 95 percent of the department‘s funding is focused on human services programs, not traditional welfare programs.  Amazingly, Pennsylvania is only one of two states in the nation that still uses the term “Welfare” in the name of one of its departments.  And it is not even an accurate description since the overwhelming majority of funding from the agency goes to health and human services programs.

Why is this important?  Recently, five former Pennsylvania Governors – George Leader, Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, and Ed Rendell – joined together to call on the Pennsylvania legislature to change the name of the department.  As they put it, “Words matter. Names matter. Stigma lasts.”  They noted that the name would make sense if it describes what the agency actually does.

This is not a partisan issue.  This is about doing what is right.  We do not want citizens to put off reaching out to a government agency for assistance because they are concerned about the perception that they might be receiving “welfare” benefits.

We represent a number of older Pennsylvanians who worked for years in low wage jobs.  Some have outlived their spouses or family members. Now, many in their 80s, need help. For instance, some qualify for in-home care enabling them to can stay in their own home and avoid going into a more costly nursing facility. In order to receive these services to which they are entitled they have to fill out a Department of Public Welfare application. It is at this point that many refuse services to avoid going on the “public dole.” Instead many end up costing the public more by going to a nursing home.  Stigma not only hurts, it costs the State money.

The stigma applies to families caring for loved ones with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.  It applies to families seeking assistance with the process of adopting a child and families with babies, toddlers and preschoolers with developmental delays who are receiving early intervention services.  It also includes women recovering from domestic abuse, receiving breast cancer screenings, or who are undergoing the process of healing from rape.

We are talking about families and individuals who receive services from our Department of Public Welfare.  And because we believe that names do matter, that certain words carry an unnecessary stigma, we have joined together in a bipartisan effort to introduce legislation to change to name to a more accurate reflection of the duties of the department to the Department of Human Services.

We believe that is a sound investment so that Pennsylvania’s seniors, families, and other citizens legitimately seeking assistance do not have to live unnecessarily with the stigma of “welfare” or being on the “public dole.”

Senators Bob Mensch and Jay Costa are the joint sponsors of Senate Bill 840 that calls for the name of the Department of Public Welfare to be changed to the Department of Human Services.  Mensch represents the 24th Senate District of Pennsylvania, which includes portions of Bucks, Lehigh, Montgomery, and Northampton Counties. Costa represents the 43rd Senate District of Pennsylvania, which includes Allegheny County.


Sarah Stroman
(215) 541-2388