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Opinion: Columnists

Hilton Head offers a better way out of poverty than minimum wage hikes

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Education,Columnists,Federal Budget,Analysis

Seattle's city council and mayoral candidates are considering raising the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. Instead, they should put in place educational programs like Hilton Head's Neighborhood Outreach Connection to help residents move up to higher-paying job opportunities.

"Increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour is surely reasonable in the face of the massive siphoning of income to the very top," said council candidate Kshama Sawant.

Over 97 percent of workers in America make more than the national $7.25 minimum wage. The fundamental social problem is not the level of the minimum wage, but that minimum-wage workers find it difficult to move on to better-paying jobs.

That's where better education comes in. Better education in elementary school leads to better achievement in high school. That leads to a community college or four-year college degree, with earnings that can be many multiples of the minimum wage.

To improve education levels for low-income students, look no further than South Carolina. Hilton Head is home to the Neighborhood Outreach Connection (NOC), which helps low-income families through the provision of health services, after-school and summer tutoring, pre-kindergarten classes, and adult English classes.

NOC is the brainchild of Narendra Sharma, who is using his 32 years of World Bank experience to fight domestic poverty. When he retired to Hilton Head, he decided to spend his time not on golf or swimming, but in helping low-income communities in Hilton Head and nearby Bluffton.

Sharma's program gets results by setting up health and education programs in low-income communities.

When I visited Hilton Head's The Oaks, a low-income townhouse community, I saw Hispanic children playing on a playground built by their parents with materials purchased by NOC.

Children get off the school bus and walk to townhouses that have been transformed to classrooms, complete with computers and individualized curricula. The Beaufort Memorial Mobile Health Bus visits twice a year. Even librarians come to call.

I visited classrooms with folding plastic tables, capable of being arranged in different configurations at varied heights for diverse age groups of learners. Large metal safes housed laptops, charging overnight in preparation for the next day's class.

Children come after school for two hours. After a light snack of fruit and juice (NOC is trying to teach them about nutrition, and stays away from sugary and salty snacks), they spend an hour working on homework, and an hour on remedial instruction.

Sharma is especially proud of his pre-school program, offered three times a week in the mornings. It includes mothers and focuses on school readiness skills. He told me, "Many of our children enter kindergarten without proper learning skills (language, alphabet, numbers, shapes, colors, etc.) and remain behind. This program gets them ready for school."

Children are taught by teachers from the schools. They are paid to do after-school tutoring, supplemented by volunteers from high schools who want to do community service.

This is a low-budget operation, without bureaucrats sitting in offices.

NOC's annual budget for programs in education, health care, and workforce development, as well as social events, is about $225,000. The program helps approximately 200 students annually. Education is NOC's flagship program and accounts for about 70 percent of its budget.

It may be low-cost, but it works. NOC arranges for public schools to test children, ensuring unbiased results. Students who took summer learning programs in 2012 performed better on math and reading tests than all Beaufort County students. During the academic year 2012-2013, NOC students regularly exceeded national averages.

The way to higher-paying jobs is by increasing skills, not by artificially raising wages. Education gives the freedom to move up in the workforce, out of that minimum-wage job.

DIANA FURCHTGOTT-ROTH, a Washington Examiner columnist (dfr@manhattan-institute.org) and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

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