During the May 22 – 25 APSHA National Health and Human Services 2016 Summit, I was struck by the use of the word “welfare” and in particular by whom. Over the past 20+ years “welfare” has been supplanted by the more politically correct terms of “human services” or “social services”. I have to admit that I found it funny when a few speakers used the “W” word because the audience gasped. The speakers quickly picked up on this and shifted to using the term “human services”, but it was apparent that these speakers used the term “welfare” and not “human services” in their daily work. Being a curious sort, I had to figure out why these folks used “welfare”.
Based upon conversations with, and presentations by, advocates and individuals working with state and federal policymakers “welfare” is their natural term. For government executives (White House/governors and their staff) and lawmakers (Congress/state legislators and their staff) “welfare” remains the term of choice because that is the term used by their constituents. Because “welfare” is a meaningful term to the public, it resonates with policymakers. This contrasted with the Human Service agency administrators who gasped when a speaker said “welfare”.
The reasons are obvious – while state and federal policymakers speak in terminology that their constituents use, agency administrators and providers use “human services” to destigmatize the work they do while also demonstrating a holistic view of their programs beyond traditional welfare. The public still sees human services very narrowly, focusing on SNAP (aka Food Stamps), cash assistance and Medicaid, and these programs have long been deemed as “welfare”. (As a test: randomly ask someone in the general public where the “social services” or “human services” office is located and you’ll get a blank stare. Ask where the local “welfare” office is and you might get a response.)
“Human/social services” is the language of state and local agencies and providers because they have a more holistic view of the system and the services they provide.
For consultants and advocates looking to influence state/federal policymakers, here’s some simple advice: If you’re dealing with governors, legislators and their staff use “welfare” as an easy reference point. Discussing the broader “human services” programs and services and how these programs interact with traditional “welfare” is important, but be cognizant of tying those programs/services to “welfare”.
When dealing with local, state and federal agencies and local services providers use “human services” or “social services”. “Welfare” will cause gasps and start things off on a bad foot.