One Way to Make Welfare More Popular: Use a Different Word

Matt Berman

Pennsylvania's safety net is in trouble. State Republicans are increasingly critical of it, and, despite an increase from last year, the state's new budget doesn't boost welfare spending to the level desired by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. But state lawmakers have a way to save Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare: Change the name.

The state House approved a bill Monday night that will gradually change the name of the department to the Department of Human Services. The department, which was awarded $11 billion in the budget approved last week, oversees a wide range of safety-net programs, from medical care to services for the elderly, the poor, and those with special needs. The name change has the support of the United Way, state Republicans, and the head of the department. When you look at polling around "welfare," it's easy to see why.

When respondents to a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll were asked to identify the factor "most responsible for the continuing problem of poverty," the most popular answer given was "too much welfare that prevents initiative." Some 24 percent of poll respondents gave that answer, compared with 18 percent who blamed the lack of job opportunities. This is despite recent polling from Pew that found that 57 percent of Americans say that the government has the responsibility "to care for those who cannot take care of themselves." One way to help connect the negative impression of "welfare" and the positive impression of government help? Use a different word.

Pennsylvania Public Welfare Secretary Bev Mackereth knows this. "A lot of people believe that the word 'welfare' presents a huge stigma to people," she told the York Daily Record/Sunday News. That stigma isn't just about people opposed to "welfare." That stigma is also attached to welfare recipients, who can become the focus of those negative attitudes.

The name change, of course, isn't going to solve everything. "Why in the world would we want to rename the Department of Public Welfare?" Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe said before the House voted. "I think there should be a stigmatism for being on welfare.... You should not be satisfied with living off the fruit of your neighbor's labor."

This argument about what government does, and what it should do, isn't going away. But in Pennsylvania, it will be happening under a different name.