Don’t Call It Welfare: The Power of Political Naming

By Beth Gerber

June 29, 2010

Nowhere is the power of naming more evident than in the political realm. Take the term “welfare,” for instance. The word has such a bad rap in this country that you can smear just about any political initiative by labeling it as such. And the smear extends across the pond: with many Americans on the right dissing Europe as one big “welfare state.” So I was struck, listening to author Steven Hill discuss his latest book, “Europe’s Promise,” on NPR, when he proposed a new term for the kind of social benefits many European countries routinely provide citizens (like universal health care, paid sick and parental leave, subsidized college education and low cost—or free—childcare). He’d call such programs “workfare” instead of “welfare.” Interesting. Reframing these benefits as a support system that helps people to lead healthy, productive lives as workers is a lot closer to the reality, Hill would argue, than the specter of social programs that enable people to kick back on the dole. At the very least, it’s certainly a deft way of reframing the conversation.

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