When it comes to the jobless poor, conventional wisdom tends along one of two lines. The first is the conservative notion that they really don't want to work -- presumably preferring the effortless luxury of welfare. The second -- liberal -- explanation is that they can't get started, America's shift away from the assembly-line factories having cut the bottom rungs off the economic ladder.

There's some truth in both notions, particularly the second. But there may be more truth in the proposition that our efforts to match the jobless and entry-level jobs have been in the wrong hands: government and not-for-profit private agencies.

Peter Cove and Lee Bowes, a New York husband-wife team, have come up with an approach that should please both liberals and conservatives: the former because it shows real promise of moving the long-term unemployed from welfare to jobs while enhancing their dignity, the latter because it relies on the private sector while saving money.

They call their brainchild America Works, and it operates like this. Their firm, a profit-making entity, agrees to recruit, train and pay a wage to the erstwhile unemployed, then to find them jobs. Only after a client is off welfare and working for four months does Work America get paid: an average fee of about $5,000 for a welfare mother of two compared with a state welfare allowance of $14,000.

So far more than 500 people have made the transition, saving the state approximately $4.5 million in the first year alone. (According to Cove and Bowes, some 90 percent are still off welfare a year later.)

"The perception of both government and policy makers in this country is that education and training up front are the key to eliminating welfare dependency, that the more human capital you build into people who are at the low end, the more likely you will make them marketable," Cove said in a recent interview.

"Well, most of the people who come to us have been failed by the educational system. What they need is a job. We find that if they go to work first, they will then, like all the rest of us, seek education and training to move up to the next job. ... Training makes more sense to them when they already have a job."

It makes sense, and so does the couple's notion that to use public job placement agencies, or to pay private ones without regard to their job-placement success, provides few incentives.

"Ours is the only program I know of that asks nothing up front of any public entity. Only if the person is hired and off welfare do we get any public money." Bowes and Cove say they want to become "the Federal Express of the welfare system."

As they explained to Charlayne Hunter-Gault of Public Broadcasting's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, "What Federal Express did was to privatize what the government was not doing very well and take certain pieces of the Postal System and do it on a private basis. What we are trying to do is to take welfare reform and get welfare recipients off of welfare and into jobs with health benefits, doing what the government clearly has failed at over the years."

The early signs are encouraging. Their New York clients have been out of the work force and on welfare for an average of six or seven years, and yet most of them turn out to be reliable employees. What makes it work, they say, is the combination of teaching the jobless the work habits that employers value and instilling in them the confidence it takes to progress on the job.

Bowes, a sociologist, says she came to a clearer understanding of the impediments to the welfare-to-work transition by working with Russian Jewish immigrants. Their attitudes, she says, "are so similar {to U.S. welfare recipients} it's unbelievable. They face discrimination. There is racial discrimination and religious discrimination against them, so their self-esteem is terribly low. And their expectations and knowledge of the work place and how it operates are often out of sync with what the reality is. They don't know how to look for work. They never had to go out and job interview. They've been paid irrespective of how hard they work, so there isn't a correlation between work and pay."

In one sense, Bowes and Cove may be getting the cream of the welfare crop -- not necessarily in terms of skills but because they are dealing with people who have been on welfare for years and want desperately to be off.

But they believe that description fits most welfare recipients. And they also believe that public opposition to welfare is less the result of mean-spiritedness than a reluctance to spend money on something that doesn't work.

"Our approach works," says Cove. "The employers love it, even the labor unions love it, because we are recruiting new members for them. The state loves it because we are saving tax dollars, and the clients love it because they have their dignity restored. It's a win-win situation."