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PRIVATE AGENCIES STEP IN TO GET FOLKS OFF THE PUBLIC DOLE

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For four years, Norma Roman languished on welfare, feeling increasingly down and out.

She looked for work, but nothing helped - not even three government-funded placement programs. Then, a friend told Roman about America Works, a kind of finishing school for welfare recipients.Counselors there pumped up her ego, polishing "the way I spoke to people, the way I carried myself. On my lunch hour, they would tape my voice," to smooth the edges from her Brooklyn accent.

Last October, she was hired on the spot while interviewing for a sales position in health care.

"I was ecstatic," said Roman, 37. "I was able to give my daughter a big birthday party. I wasn't able to before."

Since then, she has been promoted - and her employer has hired three more America Works graduates.

America Works is one of several private agencies, some for profit, others not, that seek to replace or supplement the government in what may be the challenge of the decade: getting people off welfare and into jobs. Among them:

- Virginia-based Maximus Inc., which has contracts in Wyoming, California, Massachusetts and Tennessee, is "generally 20 percent less expensive than the government, and our placement rates are two to six times higher," said David Mastran, its chief executive.

- In Nebraska, the Department of Social Services refers job-ready candidates to Dean Curtis and Associates, a for-profit company that has government contracts in California, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

What's the appeal of these programs?

"Accountability," said Mastran of Maximus. "The contractor has to perform or they can be fired. In the government, who are you going to fire?"

And the average welfare office, buried in cases and "a dizzying array of rules," can afford "very little emphasis" on getting people jobs, said Bruce Reed, co-chairman of President Clinton's welfare reform panel.

Until that changes, Reed said, outside agencies will have a role in getting people off the dole.

But will the role be starring or cameo? Reed concedes it's still not clear "the private sector is any more or less efficient than the public sector" in such matters.

America Works had a rocky start. In 1987, Massachusetts canceled a contract with a nonprofit ancestor of America Works that allegedly billed the state for singing telegrams and health club dues. Officials in Ohio and in Buffalo, N.Y., said their America Works programs in the late 1980s were expensive and ineffective.

Critics also accuse America Works of a practice called "cherry picking," or "creaming the crop."

"They choose the best and the brightest, the most likely to succeed," dumping the toughest cases onto cash-strapped nonprofits, said Kenneth Cowdery, executive director of the Clarkson Center, the agency chosen to replace America Works in Buffalo.

Reed called that criticism unfair, saying America Works deserved some share of credit for its clients' success.

America Works receives a fee from the employer, based on the employee's pay and benefits. The employer also gets a $1,500 federal tax credit.

The company gets $985 for the training and $3,856 for the placement, but only if a client lands a job. If the client keeps the job for 90 days, the company gets $649 more.

The average nonprofit agency in New York City charges about $3,000 per placement. America Works said it deserves more because its people get better-paying jobs and stay longer.

Clients train for six weeks, learning business comportment, punctuality, vocabulary and proper dress. They hone computer, typewriter, math, reading and time-management skills.

Once a job-seeker is hired - jobs pay at least $200 a week plus health benefits - America Works sticks by for three months, evaluating initiative, job performance and social skills.

"That's what every welfare office ought to be doing," Reed said. "We still have a lot to learn."