Cathy Njinwoua, 10, tries to remember the answer to a homework question with her mentor Shanae Henry at Bruce Monroe Elementary School in Washington. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

Today, Columbia University graduate student Isaac Solano discusses the role mentoring has played in his journey out of poverty. He refers to both informal and formal mentoring, the latter of which Wellesley College professor Phillip Levine evaluated a few months ago for the Brookings Institutions’ Hamilton Project. His paper was part of the project’s June 2014 “Policies to Address Poverty in America.”

In a country with “a high and growing level of inequality and not very much mobility,” fostering and maintaining aspiration in youth is critical to their success, Levine says.

“You have to find ways to make kids not only think they have a chance to be successful, but make it true that they have a chance to be successful,” he says. “You can’t just tell them, ‘Look, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it,’ when they can’t because they will figure it out eventually.”

Levine looked at a very particular type of mentoring in his evaluation: that which will help a kid leave poverty. He focused on educational outcomes, which are a predictor of labor market success. The higher the grade-point average, the better the chances of graduating high school and setting down the path to economic success.

The economics professor fairly quickly ruled out school-based programs as an answer. Kids in such programs don’t show much improvement in their grade-point averages. On the other hand, he says, kids in community-based programs do. The difference may be that community-based programs tend to offer much more consistent face time between mentor and young person with less focus on academic tutoring.

“It’s not about spending an hour after school taking about homework, but it’s more life skills and how do you navigate the waters,” Levine says.

The prototype for all this – and the model from which Levine suggests building – is Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which provides mentors to about 200,000 adolescents nationwide. Young people in this program show improvement in academic performance across several measures, including a small but significant increase in pivotal grade-point average. The program’s mentors undergo background checks and extensive training and are supervised.

Big Brothers Big Sisters costs about $1,600 per participant – so a basic question arises: Is it worth it?

Intuitively, most laypeople would say yes. But economists, being economists, tend to answer this in a very particular way: as a matter of private return on investment vs. social return. In the case of private return, does the young person benefit more from mentoring than if Big Brothers Big Sisters had just given him or her the money?

Absolutely, Levine concludes. Doing some fancy math that converts improved grade-point averages into wages over a lifetime, Big Brothers Big Sisters benefits exceed costs by a ratio of almost 5 to 1, he writes.

But it is more difficult to prove that traditional mentoring programs generate social benefits greater than their cost, he says. A typical measurement would be through reduced incarceration rates and social service spending or through increased tax revenue. There’s just not enough available evidence, Levine writes, and for that reason, mentoring might be an intervention best suited for nongovernmental organizations and the private sector – rather than through direct government spending.

Which brings us to the Big Policy Question when it comes to investing in disadvantaged youth: “Is this about helping them or helping us?” Levine asks. “We like it when we can say something reduces crime because that helps us. We like it when they pay higher taxes because that helps us. It’s not obvious that mentoring helps us, but it does help them and that has to be the goal of such interventions.”

(As in all things, the layman here argues, there is value that can be measured and value that is immeasurable, and what helps them inevitably helps us.)

By some estimates, he writes, as many as 9 million children have no caring adults in their lives. Millions of adolescents would benefit from community-based mentoring, Levine argues, and although the extent of the need may be beyond the capacity of NGOs and the private sector to provide, “it is better to make a sizable dent in an important social problem than to ignore it because it cannot be solved completely.”