The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Opinion

July 15, 2014

Pa. Welfare Department looks for name change

- — Pennsylvania is one state in this great nation that still has something called the Department of Public Welfare.

So, naturally, there’s a movement afoot to rename the agency and abandon a moniker that critics say has pejorative overtones that don’t reflect its full range of work.

New names don’t come cheaply, however. In an early guesstimate, the department said changing its brand would cost $8 million.

That’s enough to cover a year’s worth of food stamps for more than 5,000 people.

One might hope that most of that money represents the grand prize in a “Pick a new name for DPW” contest.

Sadly, it’s not true. There is no grand prize. There is no contest.

And, upon reflection, it’s not going to cost $8 million to change the agency’s letterhead, signs and computer programs, anyway.

That figure was floated last year by Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth.

A fiscal note attached to the name-change bill written by legislative staff puts the actual cost closer to $1 million. Even that seems to be a rather wildish guess.

Stephen Drachler with the Campaign for What Works, a coalition lobbying for the change, said the $8 million figure was “bandied about until it was explored more carefully.”

Should the Legislature ever get around to actually changing the name, the agency’s staff will save money by using up their old stationery instead of immediately ordering new paper. Computer changes can be put off until previously scheduled updates are made, Drachler said. And most signs won’t need to be replaced until they are worn out.

It’s a small world: Drachler had my job, reporting in Harrisburg for newspapers including The Herald and The Daily Item in Sunbury, way back in the 1970s, when I was chewing on letters instead of writing them. Now, he works for the do-gooder organization created by the Allegheny County United Way and two other Pittsburgh nonprofits. More than 100 other groups have joined the campaign to lobby for the Department of Public Welfare’s name change.

Why? As Drachler explains it, 98 cents of every dollar spent by the department go toward things that most people would not associate with “welfare.” That includes medical assistance for the disabled, long-term care for elderly, and aid for families with intellectually disabled children.

At worst, he said, calling it the Welfare Department deters people from seeking help for fear they will be stigmatized.

“It affects people in every community in Pennsylvania,” he said.

The Senate unanimously passed legislation approving the name change before skipping out for the summer. Gov. Tom Corbett has indicated he will sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk. The only thing standing in the way is the House, which almost exactly a year ago approved a slightly different version of the bill.

As for a new name for the Department of Public Welfare: Barring some unforeseen stroke of legislative inspiration, it will be the Department of Human Services.

On second thought, maybe they should’ve had a contest.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics for CNHI.

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