Civiletti sees a duty to help the poor

Q&A

March 16, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Got a commission, task force, board or panel? Call Benjamin R. Civiletti. The life of the 58-year-old Baltimore lawyer has been full of such extracurricular activities since he served as U.S. attorney general under President Jimmy Carter.

One might think it would get tiresome or tedious. Yet Mr. Civiletti agreed in January to chair another commission, tackling Maryland's welfare system. The 20-member board will meet twice a month through September, producing a report this fall.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer made clear, in his State of the State address, that the commission may consider any options to deal with the state's record high welfare rolls, which climbed to more than 220,000 at the height of Maryland's recession and remained there. He even threw out the idea of forcing some welfare mothers to use Norplant, a contraceptive device that works automatically for up to five years after being inserted into the skin.

Mr. Civiletti claims no expertise in these issues. But after just two meetings of the commission, his desk at Venable, Baetjer, Howard and Civiletti is stacked with "homework" -- reports and other scholarly ruminations on welfare. And his brain is racing with ideas about the system that everyone seems to have some plan for improving.

QUESTION: Did you have to examine your own thoughts and feeling about the poor when you took on this commission? Do you think the poor are somehow different, or inferior?

ANSWER: No. I did have, and do have, some value judgments.

I don't think it's a sin to be poor. I think society has a duty to help the poor. The poor have the same basic and constitutional rights as anyone else. And a lot of poor people have shown greater courage under tougher circumstances than many people who are a great deal better off.

If you bundle all those beliefs up, I guess I believe that many of the public attitudes toward people on welfare are misplaced -- or suffer from political stereotypes.

Q.: And are these feelings heightened by economic hard times?

A.: Yes. Because the anxiety level and fear of being without a job, or without funds, rises. That creates friction and pressure. The perception is they're not trying. "They're lazy." "They don't care."

Q.: Did you have any reluctance about taking on yet another commission?

A.: Not because of the subject matter. I had some reluctance because of other commitments. And I have found you have to take the amount of time they say you'll need -- in this case, a day per month -- and double it.

I also wanted to know if we would have enough time to do a reflective job. I wasn't interested in a quickie commission, or rubber-stamping some previous position, or doing a report that gathers dust on the shelf.

Q.: So what exactly is your charge?

A.: Our charge, in the governor's language, is to examine the entire system and to make recommendations to improve the system. Now what I think that translates to is looking at models, some that have been tried in other places and some that are theoretical.

Then we have to focus.

One way is to look at it administratively. A simpler program is generally one that is better understood, one that gets a maximum amount of money through to the beneficiaries. And it avoids confusion and red tape.

The second goal, I think, is to look at what you're trying to accomplish and see if the philosophy is consistent with the best available thinking today.

Q.: Can you give an example?

A.: It used to be that you were punished. There was a philosophy of punishment, or penalties. If you got work, then you got knocked down dollar for dollar, or some ratio, from welfare. That might have been a good standard and it still may have some relevance. But if the idea is to provide a pathway to self-sufficiency, then it seems to me you want to encourage and provide incentives for independent working, not penalties.

Q.: Much of the welfare debate centers on "carrots and sticks" -- rewards and punishments -- for welfare clients. Which do you prefer?

A.: I'm very much in favor of carrots. I'm not in favor of sticks, not much. I've never found it very appealing, or very inspiring or stimulating to say to anyone, 'If you don't change your conduct, we're going to beat you and we're going to beat you again.' "

Q.: Does that mean you disapprove of the current system, in which welfare mothers lose money if their preschool children don't get checkups, or older children don't attend school?

A.: I guess you can look at it in a different way.

You can look at it as a carrot, instead of a stick. If you do these things, you get an extra $25 per child. Everyone has to get a child ready to attend school. That doesn't trouble me so much.

Q.: A lot of ideas are around on how to change welfare. What do you think about "time-limiting," in which people are told they will receive assistance for only two years?

A.: It's better to be careful with arbitrary time periods. You'd better know what you're doing, and make it a goal, rather than an absolute.

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