“Nobody wants to fund welfare!”

Those words rung in our ears not just because of the message, but because of the messenger. The Pennsylvania legislature had just passed – and the Governor had just signed – a budget that cut hundreds of millions of dollars for people with mental illness, programs for people with intellectual disabilities, widowers needing long term care, and people with physical disabilities requiring services in order to work. And yet, as a key Senate staffer told us shortly after the bill’s passage, the reasoning boiled down to that one key message: “Nobody wants to fund welfare.”

And, as hard as it seemed at the time, the Senate staffer was right.  No one wanted to fund welfare. But the argument pointed to a more basic mistake – it was fundamentally wrong to classify human services as “welfare” in the first place.  The terrible, inaccurate stigma with the word “welfare” – which gained a real foothold in the American consciousness in the 1980s with the rise of the term “welfare queen” – had stuck. Survey after survey showed voters supporting a cut in “welfare” – but not when the survey actually listed the real human services programs funded by their taxpayer dollars.

A civic campaign is born. The hypothesis was simple – a change in the name of the State’s Department of Public Welfare to Department of Human Services could fundamentally change the perception of the real people behind the state programs.

Picking champions. Denny Civic Solutions knew that the right champion had to be a legislator serving on the right committees (Public Health & Welfare and Human Services), from the right part of the state (vote-rich Southeast PA) and be in the majority (Republican).  Moreover, if the champion had a personal connection to the cause, all the better.  Senator Bob Mensch (R-Bucks, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton), member of the Senate Public Health & Welfare Committee and father of a son with disabilities, was the ideal ally in the Senate.  Mensch, along with Representative Tom Murt (R-Montgomery, Philadelphia), a member of the House Human Services Committee whose family received food stamps while he served in Iraq, became our two lead legislative champions.


Rep. Bob Mensch

Rep. Bob Mensch

Rep. Thomas Murt

Rep. Thomas Murt

Developing the right message.  Denny Civic Solutions knew the message had to be simple, easy to understand, and appealing.  Five reasons were developed to justify the name change.

1. Call it what it is – 97% of what the Department of Public Welfare funds is for human services.

2. Be respectful – humans in need of services don’t deserve to be stigmatized as welfare.

3. Be consistent – 67 counties in Pennsylvania have Departments of Human Services, not welfare.

4. Don’t be last –Pennsylvania was the last of two states in the entire country to have a department using the word “welfare.”

5. Changing the name won’t cost a penny – this became an important point as some opponents publicly opposed the bill on false cost projections.

Building a large, unique coalition.  Sure, we started with the expected (albeit critically important) coalition groups like human service providers and associations, United Way organizations, and community foundations.  But to really make an impact on our target audience, we developed a continuously-expanding coalition group that encompassed religious leaders, five former Governors (Republicans and Democrats), six former Secretaries of the Department of Public Welfare, major Republican party leaders, and, of course, consumers of human services themselves.

Twists and Turns. Few civic campaigns go exactly as planned, and changing the name of DPW was no different.

Early in the process, our House champion was ready to introduce his legislation with a few co-sponsors, when (twist) the Champion was encouraged to wait and get more bipartisan support before moving forward.  Then, (turn) just before the House legislation was to be introduced, opponents of the name change made the inaccurate charge that it would cost $8 million in IT costs to change the name.  Working quickly, (twist) the House champion changed the legislation to eliminate any costs by a gradual phase-in of the new name.

Not long after, (turn) the House majority leader pledged his support if we could get half of his Republican caucus to support the legislation.  Working feverishly, (twist) the campaign attracted just over half of House Republicans as cosponsors.  Then, when it was finally time to move forward, (turn) the Senate passed legislation to change the name of DPW as part of its overall Welfare bill before (twist) the House stripped the name change out of the bill and passed its own name change bill.

Finally, (turn) the Senate Public Health and Welfare committee approved the House name change bill and sent it to the Senate floor, where it was delayed due to the legislature’s schedule and full slate of pending legislation.

Yet in the best of all twists, the continued, tireless push by our incredible coalition kept the effort alive.  Finally, the legislation was signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett on September 24 as Act 132 of 2014, after receiving unanimous 49 – 0 support in the Senate and a vote of 155 – 35 in the House.  The Department of Public Welfare officially became the Department of Human Services on November 24, 2014.

Top roots and grassroots. Sometimes, civic campaigns can be won with only “top roots” support; that is, backing from highly influential, powerful leaders.  Sometimes they can be won with only grassroots support, with masses of citizens coming together at the local level.  Most often it’s a combination of both, and Denny Civic Solutions recognized this.

Yet in the end, sometimes the deciding factor comes from an unexpected place.  In this case, it was a simple, direct email from a grassroots provider in the district of the Senate Majority leader that prompted him into action, guiding the bill through the Senate to set it up for final passage.

Outcome. Simply put, an idea that was a priority for no one became a must-do for almost everyone!  A renewed and energized statewide human services coalition emerged. Unexpected allies popped up.  Bipartisan support was broad and deep. But most importantly of all, the effort to change the name of the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Human Services began to change the basic tone and understanding of the conversation.  Previous opponents of “welfare” are now supportive allies of vital human services. Consumers of human services have become more emboldened to talk about their value as well as their needs. And Pennsylvania, finally, is no longer be one of the last states to call human services “welfare.”