Ahead of a conference Monday to examine the first half-year of Mehalev - the Wisconsin Program's 2-year pilot run in Israel - debate continues on the merits of the program and its performance to date. "We want to set a new agenda in Israeli society, in which employment is a value," said Dorit Novak, the head of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry's administration running Mehalev. Novak said she will present "very gladdening" statistics at the event, as well as various changes and improvements needed, and plans for carrying the project forward over the next year. Four pilot offices were opened in August to run welfare-to-work programs through four different foreign companies bringing experience in the field from the Netherlands, the US, and Britain, together with local partners. The companies receive compensation based on the number of welfare recipients they wean off the dole and place into jobs. The offices were originally mandated to handle 14,000 households divided evenly among four pilot areas: Jerusalem; Ashkelon-Sderot; Nazareth; and Hadera-Wadi Ara. Though initial concerns highlighted the possible negative effects of "privatized welfare" and continued allegations abound that some companies are trampling the rights and honor of welfare recipients and denying them welfare allowances unjustly, community rights organization Yedid reserved much of its criticism for the government's handling of the project. "Despite the limits placed on the concessionaires and the fact that not enough jobs that might employ the program's participants at a fair and appropriate salary have been created so far, it appears that some of the concessionaires are trying to broadcast empathy, humanity, and an honest desire to achieve good results within the framework of the experiment and its time-frame. The government, on the other hand, is walling itself off behind the law, and not doing enough to fix and change what needs fixing, as already appears from the going-on on the ground over the past months," Yedid charged. However, Hilary Warmoth, general manager of the Jerusalem Mehalev pilot office Amin (A4e) said her branch has benefited from an "excellent working relationship with the [ministry's Mehalev] administration," and that there is constant discussion about how the program is progressing and what could be done to improve it. One of the important problems has been "the failure of the system" to involve only those welfare recipients that have a higher chance of integrating successfully into the job market, the Yedid report said. Yedid spokesman Ran Melamed noted that some of the Mehalev pilot centers were allocated a majority of older welfare recipients, between the ages of 45 and 65, particularly in Jerusalem and Ashkelon. "This is somewhat less of a problem in Nazareth and Hadera," he said. Warmoth confirmed that 60% of welfare recipients referred to the Jerusalem office were over the age of 45, and that, of those, one-third were over the age of 55. Ministry statistics indicate that about one-quarter of the participants nationwide are aged 54 or older. Novak said that only those welfare recipients the National Insurance Institute determined to be able to work were selected to participate in Mehalev. "There is no reason whatsoever to say that simply because somewhat is above the age of 55 or even 65 that he should be prevented from having a chance to return to the work force. The state must not give up and say that it will not handle these people. We have had many instances in which people aged 56 or 62 tell us that they want to work," Novak said. "Of course it is more difficult [to place them] - that's what the program is for." Amin-A4e also received a higher than average number of people with disabilities, both physical and mental, including drug abuse, but these cases have not been quantified, Warmoth said. She added that she had "no evidence" that the NII had referred an especially difficult group of welfare recipients to the program, since such problems are normally encountered in the welfare recipient population - or "customer base" - in any event. Of the nearly 6,500 people referred to Amin-A4e - more than 2,000 beyond the number originally anticipated - about 950 have been placed in jobs. "We are looking to place our 1,000th in the first week of Februrary," Warmoth said, indicating that the number was within the expected range. She believes they are in a good position. "I say that the numbers are far better than anticipated, since we've been able to accommodate people in those challenging groups. When you handle everyone as individuals, it is less relevant what language they speak or what their disabilities are," she said. As an example, the office even managed to find a job in the fashion industry for a deaf-mute woman with textile experience, she said. Beyond the nearly 2,000 Arabic speakers from east Jerusalem, the office has handled nearly 600 Russian speakers and about 150 Ethiopian olim, as well as sign-language users and speakers of English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Persian and other languages. "We've been speaking very little Hebrew," Warmoth said. Novak said only that the statistics she would present Monday for first half-year of the Mehalev pilot in all four areas are "very gladdening," and that the program has been "very successful" on the whole. Within the first three months of the program, 18,000 individual participants had been handled by the four offices; 1,980 had been placed with paying jobs; 920 were working in community service while continuing to receive allowances; 2,200 never contacted the offices and were stripped of welfare allowances; and 1,060 initially reported to the program but then dropped out, according to figures released by the ministry last month. One indication of optimism - or at least realism - regarding the program is that, six months into it, most organizations who were opposed at the outset have begun to center their calls on fixing shortcomings, and no longer urge that the project be cancelled entirely, according to Melamed. Novak stressed that the pilot phase is meant to be a learning process. "We are following the program's progress to learn what needs improvement in order to make it better," she said. Warmoth corroborated. "Everyone [involved] is looking at what's working and what's not working ... [But] people tend to focus on what's not working."