By Patrick Cauley and Mark Sieckman
Edited by Jason Soukup
Eleven percent of Beaufort County’s residents live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Although the county reported the state’s lowest unemployment rate at 4.5 percent, some people struggle to live in Beaufort County’s crown jewel, Hilton Head Island.
Service industry workers
"Everyone thinks it’s a nice place, but you work a lot to live here," said Misty Marshall, a sales clerk at Loose Lucy’s in Coligny Plaza.
Marshall, 21, works three jobs to afford living in one of South Carolina’s most affluent areas. Marshall pays $1,275 a month for a two-bedroom apartment on Hilton Head Island.
"One job goes all to rent," Marshall said.
More than half of Beaufort County’s top 20 employers are in the service industry, including hotels, restaurants and retail outlets, according to a 2005 report by the South Carolina Employment Security Commission.
"There is a lot more working than people realize," Hilton Head Town Manager Steven Riley said. "The drive to and from work is prettier, but it’s just like any other place."
That drive is another problem for some service industry workers. At the Holiday Inn Ocean Front, front desk employee Lena Bramble said most of the hotel’s employees live off the island and have to travel 30 minutes to work each day.
"There is no advancement in this island because it’s a hospitality island, not corporate," Bramble said.
Loyce Hill, a Hilton Head Island Bi-Lo employee, must take a taxi to work. Although she lives on the island, Hill takes a taxi because she can’t afford a car.
"I get a cab, and that can be very expensive," Hill said.
She said some of Hilton Head’s rich don’t realize there are poor people, "but there are." Hill, originally from Biloxi, Miss., said she has written to Hilton Head Mayor Tom Peeples requesting public transportation for people like her who can’t afford cars.
Hilton Head’s Volunteers in Medicine clinic was founded in 1994 to help people having difficulty getting basic health care. It cares for about 9,000 patients annually.
"The patients we see in the clinic are the ones caught in the gap," spokeswoman Margie Maxwell said, "not poor enough for Medicaid and not old enough for Medicare."
The clinic provides free medical, dental, vision and mental care to about 800 people who visit each week. It operates on grants and donations from local residents, in addition to about 450 volunteers, many of whom are retired physicians. With an annual budget of $1.2 million, the clinic is the largest nonprofit organization on Hilton Head Island.
Maxwell said 80 percent of the clinic’s patients are employed, many with two jobs.
"Someone has to keep the sheets clean at the Westin, the greens and fairways beautiful and the restaurants open," Maxwell said. "The worrisome issue here is that, because of spiraling costs of health care, this patient base of ours here on the island will continue to grow."
More than half of its patients are Hispanic and a quarter is black.
Socioeconomic disparity in schools
"Hilton Head is much more diverse than most people perceive it," Riley said.
Hispanics and blacks make up about one-fifth of the total population of 33,862 on Hilton Head Island, according to the census bureau. The Hispanic population is the largest minority at 11.5 percent but makes up more than half of those living below the poverty level.
Colleen Beck is a third grade teacher at Hilton Head International Baccalaureate Elementary, one of two public schools on the island. She said the economic and cultural makeup of her classes has become "so wide it’s unbelievable" since the school eliminated Advanced Placement classes.
Her 21-student classroom is made up of eight Hispanic, one Asian, two black and 10 white children. She said the interaction among the cultures and classes has changed over the school year.
"Some of the upper-class children get frustrated when the kids start speaking Spanish," Beck said. "They had such a hard time grasping how different they could be. Now, they’re kind of joining together, finding a lot of common ground in sports."
She said the children come from such different types of homes that they had to find other common ground.
Doug Woodward, a University of South Carolina economist, said South Carolina’s largest economic problems are the low-skilled labor, shifting economic trends and lack of education — problems he said he hopes can be lessened by continually adjusting economic strategy.
"It’s not easy for the government or the private sector to do," Woodward said. "There is not enough diverse opportunity."
Woodward says the state needs to attract more creative and industrial jobs in addition to maintaining consistently good schools.
Robert Brown, director of labor market information for the South Carolina Employment Security Commission, said the election year might get policymakers to look at how the state approaches economic development.
"In election years, things like unemployment and economic indicators get a lot of high visibility," he said.
As for Hilton Head Island, Woodward sees Hilton Head as a community where the upper class retires and the service industry doesn’t pay high enough wages.