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Struggling In A Wealthy Town

For Low Wage Earners Like Temika Black, Finding Success Is One Step Up and Two Steps Back

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She still remembers her daddy's last words. "Don't let the streets take you over," he pleaded. Temika Black was 22 and pregnant with her second child when her father was shot. She held him in her arms and as she watched him die, he begged her to do one more thing. "Baby, I want you to go back to school." That was 10 years ago, and since then, Black has done her best to honor her father's final wishes. She got off the streets, got clean and sober, and went back to school. Then she found work and set out to make a better life for herself and for her family.

But after 10 years, she's the first to speak up and say her life isn't where she wants it to be. She loves her job, her apartment is clean and neat, and her three children are making good progress in school. But as the head of a low-income family, Black understands that the odds are stacked against her, that some days life is "one step up, two steps back."

Today is one of those days. Before lunchtime she's got a bad headache on top of the leftover congestion from a cold. But her food stamp money has arrived, so it's time to do the once-a-month grocery shopping. School is out for a teacher workday, and rather than leave her three kids at home watching TV, she tells them they're going along to the store. On the way out the door she asks the 10-year-old, "Who fixed your hair?"

"I did."

"Come here." The girl sits at her mother's feet while Black undoes the crooked ponytails, brushes the hair smooth, then refastens the elastics.

At the store, the baby, who's five, rides in the cart. She wants a fancy cake she sees near the store entrance. "Not today," her mother says. There's no price on the bin of loose apples, so Black passes them by and gets the ones that are pre-bagged and marked $2.99. Two large heads of cabbage, 33 cents a pound, go into the cart behind the baby, who now can't decide if she wants to ride or walk next to her big sisters. Broccoli, lettuce, peppers. Three pounds of onions are $1.69. Black gets two bags. A $2.99 bag of Yukon gold potatoes is on special for 79 cents with the store's discount card. She puts a bag into her cart.

In denim and sneakers, she looks like all the other moms who are shopping with their kids at the suburban grocery store. A couple of weeks ago when a friend was getting married, Black had some hair extensions put in, but they kept getting in her eyes so she took the long curls out a few days later. Now she's wearing her hair cropped short. When she smiles, which isn't very often, she's got dimples in both cheeks.

Black reads labels, checks prices, considers which size can or carton is the best value. Plain rice is 69¢ a bag. Raisins, $1.39. Applesauce, fruit cocktail, pickles; baked beans in the family size, $2.79 for 55 ounces. That's just the first two aisles of the store, and by the time Black is finished with her shopping, she will have had to stretch $318 to buy all the food her family will need for the month.

Where It Starts

Every low-wage family has its own story, but what the families often have in common is a pattern of poverty, further ingrained into their lives by lack of education, job skills and life skills ­ all of which get handed down from one generation to the next. Too many disadvantaged families who find employment and housing still can't become functionally self-sufficient, and they join the growing numbers of families known as the "working poor."

Raised near Charlotte's old Hoskins neighborhood in a single-parent household, Black grew up rebellious, stubborn, and wanting her voice to be heard. Her mother, Paulette Black Williams, explains a crucial part of the problem: "Dads don't do what dads are supposed to do." Little Temika didn't meet her father until she was 11. He was in jail in Philadelphia, and when Williams decided to take her daughter to meet William H. Sanders, Jr., it took three paychecks to pay for the trip.

While her playmates dreamed of doing hair when they grew up, Black dreamed of doing something with computers. Far from reluctant to work, she has been employed for most of her life. At 14, she lied about her age and got a job at Barclay's Cafeteria, where she worked until the 12th grade. Other low-wage jobs followed: Bi-Lo, Winn Dixie, Burger King, McDonald's, Peebles.

Even if she wasn't as wise then as she is now, Black knew she needed a better plan if she was going to get ahead. She tried to enlist in the Air Force, where she could get job training and health benefits.

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