The trouble with most antipoverty programs, says Max Elsman, is the "large and growing gap between what social workers know to be good for poor people and what the poor themselves will make an effort to obtain."

That simple notion illuminates the failure of so many carefully planned efforts, and it suggests an intriguingly different way of designing programs.

As for the first, it tells us why so many job-training programs are struggling to meet their enrollment goals, why mental health centers often sit empty, why so many pregnant women fail to avail themselves of health clinic services and so on. The reason, says Elsman, an Annapolis "social marketer," is that the service offered doesn't strike the client as worth the time, trouble and expense of obtaining it.

But where Elsman really gets interesting is in his pipe dream of how social programs might be more effectively designed and marketed.

In a paper ("Frankie and His Friends") he wrote for the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. of New York City, Elsman suggests how a social marketer might design an antipoverty program. His point of departure is Jay McLeod's 1982 book, "Ain't No Makin' It," and its transcribed conversations, too earthy to print here, among members of a public housing group called the "Hallway Hangers."

The conversations make clear, for instance, that the Hallway Hangers evince little desire for more schooling or available job-training programs (because they doubt a diploma or training certificate will land them in well-paid jobs) but they do show a flicker of interest in vocational training, like heavy-equipment operating.

They have utter disdain for the jobs ("working for the city, roofers, s--- like that") most of the training programs would lead to.

Moreover, Frankie and his friends -- six white and one black residents of the same public housing project -- seem empty of realistic dreams. They give no thought to careers -- successive jobs connected in some logical progression. Ask them what they see in their future, and they either mention jail or death or else such limited dreams as "working, probably ... have my own pad ... fridge full of brewskies."

Says Elsman, who with partner Jodie Sue Kelly runs Cygnet Associates: "These remarks reveal the futility of promoting jobs programs as the 'key to a better future.' For the 'Hangers' and millions of their brethren, the future simply does not exist."

So what does a social marketer do? He notes that since a few of the guys mentioned having their own apartments as a dream, it might make sense to create a "Get A Place of Your Own" program as an inducement to further education and training. That's not what most of us have in mind when we talk about job-training programs, but it may be what these youths are willing to invest some time and effort in achieving.

Then: "MacLeod struck marketing gold when he turned up what he described as the 'peculiar constancy' of their deeply felt desire to move their families out of {the projects}. Many of them want to make enough money to get their families out of the projects forever.

"Now we're onto something: a deeply felt, tangible, relatively short-term desire that is shared by a majority of the 'Hangers' and their friends. Best of all, it's an achievable goal, and one that society can heartily endorse."

So Elsman conjures up a program ("Move Momma from the Projects") that responds directly to that desire. "That's a big change from the usual program description," he notes. "It's also a big improvement -- it focuses on what the clients, not just the social workers, want."

The first session of his program would include a van tour of decent neighborhoods with affordable apartments. "Right away, we'd get participants to begin dreaming of their mothers actually leaving the projects forever. At the end of the session, we'd send everyone home with brochures showing some of the apartments we'd toured. We might even link with existing rehab or other housing programs. (What a great idea: youths learning skills while renovating housing for their mothers.)"

Then would come the plans for transforming the dream into reality: education and job training. "Outreach" might utilize simple flyers featuring a photograph of a smiling mother and her son, with the legend: "You Helped Me Get Out of the Projects. I'm So Proud of You, Son."

There's more: training stipends for the mandatory spending cash, days split between classrooms and jobs, attitude adjustment, literacy training.

Nor is "Move Momma" anything more than just one possibility for market-directed training. The point, says Elsman, is to address marketing's basic question: What does the prospective customer want, and what is he or she willing to pay for it? The answers would be gleaned for those objectives that are consonant with what the society wants.

The result, he says, would be programs that the prospective clients wanted -- by definition. And because of that, they'd have a very good chance of working.