IT'S TIME TO CHANGE the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, and it starts with something simple - its name.
Welfare does not describe what it does or whom it serves. In fact, we are the only state in the country that still has a department called "Public Welfare." This is why I have introduced a bill that would change the name from the Department of Public Welfare to a name that far better describes what this wing of our state government does: the Department of Human Services.
In Harrisburg, we just witnessed a striking, dangerous example of how lumping vital human services under welfare can produce disastrous results. In the interest of "reforming welfare," DPW proposed installing copayments for families with children who have behavioral, mental or medical health problems. These children are entitled to receive human and health services under Medicaid.
For many families, a recurring copayment for their child with multiple needs would lead to bankruptcy. But as my colleague, Rep. Frank Burns of Somerset County, said after introducing a bill to delay the copayments: "This was sold as something we needed to fight for welfare reform. But this is not the kind of welfare reform they were talking about. These are the unintended consequences you get when you give too much authority to a department."
Indeed, how are we going to truly improve and streamline the real cost-drivers in DPW - such as long-term care for our elderly and people with disabilities - if we keep categorizing these services as "welfare reform" or "waste, fraud and abuse"?
The DPW - working with 67 county governments - is responsible for delivering human services, not welfare.
And just what are these services provided by counties supported by DPW? If you have a child with an intellectual disability, he or she is entitled to human services from the county. If you have a brother who has schizophrenia or another mental illness, he is entitled to services from the county.
If a parent struggles with a powerful substance addiction, she is entitled to treatment from the county. If a homeless child needs a place to sleep, a youth in foster care seeks help or a wife and mother is married to an abuser, counties have to be there to help. Does this sound like welfare?
Ninety-three percent of DPW's budget is spent on the programs I just mentioned, plus Medicaid support for Pennsylvania children with life-limiting disabilities or our senior citizens requiring long-term nursing care. Again, caring for a grandmother in a nursing home or providing medical help for a child with autism is not what I'd call welfare. In fact, because this year's budget eliminated the cash-assistance program, even less than 7 percent of DPW's budget is now spent on programs that would be considered welfare.
When 93 percent of a department's budget is spent on human and health services, why would we still call it welfare? The term is outdated and not accurate - it's like calling our Department of Education the Department of Busing.
Changing DPW's name would more accurately reflect the department's mission, which is to promote, improve and sustain the quality of family life, break the cycle of dependency, and protect and serve Pennsylvania's most vulnerable citizens.
Dropping welfare also is more in sync with our 67 counties. Not one Pennsylvania county has a department or agency of welfare. A name change also could drive a culture change within the department. Continuing to view the consumers the department serves as merely "welfare recipients" taints the reality of those who need real help.
For me, a name change is mostly about respect. Few Pennsylvanians would ever want to be on welfare. Those on it would prefer a job and respect rather than unemployment and scorn. And those who aren't on welfare don't want to be associated with it.
Is a grandmother who worked her entire life in a hospital laundry room but now needs long-term care a welfare recipient? Is a family receiving full Medicaid coverage for a severely disabled child a welfare recipient? And what about a close family member who, through no fault of his own, suffers from schizophrenia and requires constant care?
These are Pennsylvanians who need and deserve our help. Stigmatizing the elderly or disabled is not what good Pennsylvanians do. During the coming months, I hope to convince the governor and my colleagues in the General Assembly to support my bill to get rid of welfare and change one of our most vital resources to the Department of Human Services. I hope you join me.