The Fight Against Income Inequality Starts With Children

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HILTON HEAD, SC-As Washington politicians quibble over how to help low-income families, the Neighborhood Outreach Connection in Hilton Head, South Carolina, is stepping up to the plate. By setting up classrooms in poor communities to tutor children in the empty hours when they return from school, the community-based NOC is giving children the skills they need to graduate high school, to attend college, and eventually to have a chance to get well-paying jobs.

NOC was founded in 2008 by Narendra Sharma, originally from Fiji, who has 32 years with the World Bank working on projects in developing countries. He came to Hilton Head to retire, but soon tired of playing golf. Now he works 50 hours a week without pay to raise money and run programs at NOC's centers on Hilton Head and in nearby Bluffton.

Usually when people think of helping disadvantaged youth they think that some government program and vast sums of money are essential. What NOC has shown is that this is not true.

NOC's innovative feature is to rent, borrow, or buy space in low-income housing complexes so that parents do not have to take children to be tutored. The tutors come to them. In addition, Sharma has arranged for mobile health units and libraries to visit the neighborhoods. The program serves 225 children in South Carolina's Lowcountry, and many more are waiting for openings.

The tutors, paid by NOC, are mostly teachers from the school system who are eager to help children learn. Tests conducted by the Beaufort County School District show that NOC participants in after-school and summer programs are outperforming their peers.

This is important because the path to income mobility starts with a good education. Politicians talk about raising the minimum wage, but if people cannot produce $10 or $11 an hour, the job will be given to someone with higher skills.

Graduating from high school, and then from college, makes all the difference in employment opportunities. In January 2014, when the overall unemployment rate was 6.6 percent, the unemployment rate for adults without a high school diploma was 9.6 percent. For those with a high school diploma but no college, the unemployment rate declined to 6.5 percent. A four-year college degree reduced the unemployment rate to 3.2 percent.

That is why the fight against income inequality starts at the bottom, by helping children whose parents are construction workers, housecleaners, or unemployed to get good grades and finish high school so they can attend community or four-year college.

Education was the key to success for WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, who came from the Ukraine at age 16. Koum's father was in the Ukraine, his mother was a babysitter, and the family was on food stamps. Koum is a billionaire now because his computer skills enabled him to invent WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook last week for $19 billion.

When I visited South Carolina last summer, NOC had two classroom centers at low-income housing developments at the Oaks and Bluffton House. In the fall it added Cordillo, made possible by a $90,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, and Simmons Cay. Now NOC serves children from more than 10 low-income neighborhoods on a budget of $450,000 a year.

Sharma told me, "NOC needs a million dollars over the next three years to scale up its operations to help more children and neighborhoods. With support, NOC's model can be replicated nationally. This is my vision."

During the school year, the program provides after-school help with homework and remedial education. Teachers are increasingly assigning homework that involves using a computer, but not all families in South Carolina's Lowcountry communities have computers. NOC centers have computers that allow children to do their homework.

NOC partners with the Beaufort County School District, which uses Compass Learning's online courses for remedial education. I drove with Sharma out to Bluffton House, where I watched as children logged into their personal accounts. They worked on problems tailored to their individual needs, picking up where they had left off the previous week.

In the summer, the program focuses on preventing the learning loss that occurs when children are away from school for three months.

Simmons Cay Apartments in Bluffton, which has high rates of crime and teen pregnancy, invited NOC in 2013 to provide after-school tutoring. Since communities such as the Oaks have seen crime rates decline after NOC moved in, Simmons Cay wanted to follow suit.

The apartment complex converted a community center into two classrooms, one with 12 laptop computers and one with tables. At 4:00 pm 35 fourth and fifth grade children were filing in, met by the program director, Shirley Faulcon, and the parent liaison, Nilda Mercado, and teachers.

It costs NOC $65,000 to run the program at Simmons Cay. The neighborhood holds 120 kids, of which 35 are enrolled. With more resources, NOC could double the program.

Nearby Bluffton House, run by Aspen Square Management, has 300 apartments, with 200 children. NOC rents one apartment, at $1,000 a month, which enables 40 children to be tutored by four teachers and four volunteers. Bluffton House has 47 children on the waiting list. Last year it was operating in two apartments, but the complex was sold and NOC is only allowed one.

Ally McNair, who volunteers 30 hours a week and serves as vice chair of NOC's board, told me, "I've chosen to volunteer with NOC because I believe that education, NOC's flagship program, is the key to the future success for the low-income, minority children who live in the neighborhoods where we are located."

NOC plans social events with partners in local church groups to promote a sense of community in its target neighborhoods. NOC sits on two boards of directors of homeowners' associations in the Oaks and Cordillo to enable more improvements in these developments.

This sense of community runs both ways. While NOC lends a hand to people in the neighborhoods, those people also give back to NOC. When a toilet clogged last Sunday morning in one of NOC's apartments at the Oaks, Oscar Cardozo, whose son has attended the programs, repaired it at no charge.

Through community volunteers and donations, NOC is making a difference in the lives of many children from low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods. It is giving them hope and opportunity to get ahead in life. It offers an inexpensive model to prepare the economy for the challenges America faces in the 21st century in order to be competitive. Because consigning children to a life of failure and crime is no way to be competitive.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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