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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.

"I wish I had gotten in," she says, then explains she was close to being accepted when a routine physical exam revealed she was pregnant.

Once the babies came, finding work that would accommodate the young family's needs only got harder. Even with those jobs that paid better ­ at Harris Teeter she earned $9 an hour ­ Black found it tough to get by.

There were jobs she liked, jobs she was good at, but always it seemed something got in the way. Working the switchboard at the Renaissance Suites Hotel near the Coliseum paid $8.75 an hour, but without a car it was practically impossible for her to get there. Each morning Black would catch the 5:35am bus and get uptown by 5:50, then catch the 6:15 bus which dropped her off near the coliseum by 7. Then it was a half-mile or so walk to the hotel. At the end of her shift, it was the same thing in reverse. Sometimes a friend would give her cabfare ­ about $17 ­ to save her time getting home.

She took out a loan to go to business college. Then the school went bankrupt, and she was left still owing the money she'd borrowed.

"You finally get stable, but day by day you fall further and further behind."

What "Working Poor" Means

Regardless of how families get that way, there's no doubt that by definition, "working poor" means struggling for ­ and often doing without ­ many of life's essentials. It means not having a washer or dryer, and spending $50 a week on laundry for your family, when you have the cash to pay for it and if you can catch a ride to the laundromat. It means not having money to buy a bottle of aspirin for the headache you get, a week before your twice-a-month payday. It means knowing your children might have to do without eyeglassses and dental care and college.

It also means you can't plan your life, even in the countless small ways many people take for granted. A bus that's late getting you to work can cost you that job. So can a sick child who needs a parent to care for him. The job-hopping that results isn't so much a choice as a product of those circumstances.

The Fight With Despair

Over the years, Black had begun slipping away into a life on the streets. It hurt her mother to watch. Black "had a whole bunch of conflict," Williams remembers. "I think she just gave up. We have never been on the same page at the same time; I had to give her tough love so she could see where her life was going."

It got worse when her dad died.

"Those were bad times," says Black. "I was hanging out with the crowd, trying to fit in." Those were the days of doing drugs and dancing for money. Three times she wound up at the shelter with her kids.

That's where she met Charles Walters, pastor of Remnant Outreach Ministries, a church that fed families at the shelter the first Saturday of each month. He began to minister to her, and helped her find her way back to church, and to an apartment where church and family members paid the deposit. Black moved to Booker Street on Charlotte's west side.

She and her sister, Natasha Black, would pool their welfare money; Temika got $297 a month, Natasha got $236. There were five children between them in the apartment that cost $550 a month.

"I worked at the airport and got paid weekly," but it still wasn't enough to get by, says Temika Black. "I got two months behind."

Late one night in early November 1998, it all became unbearable. She called her mother in Durham. "Mama, I need some help," she finally admitted.

"I'll be there this weekend," her mother replied.

"No ­ I need help right now."

Then Black called the minister she'd met at the shelter.

"Where are you?" he asked. She told him, and he came and got her and drove her to a treatment facility.

She did four days of detox and 20 days of inpatient drug treatment. Her doctor complained when Black wouldn't interact with the other patients. The newly sober 29-year-old replied, "I'm here to get me better."

She came home on Thanksgiving Day, stayed for awhile with some cousins, then went to Hope Haven, a halfway house, where she lived until an affordable apartment became available.

A New Kind of Freedom

She went back to school, just as she promised her daddy she would, and earned an associate's degree in computer technology. What really helped keep her motivated, Black believes, were those people along the way who told her, "I think you're trying, and I will help you."

In September 2000, she got a car through the Cars for Work program. Black loved the little white 1994 Chevy Cavalier. It was the first car she'd ever owned. She and the kids could go where they needed to go without having to ask neighbors and friends for rides all the time.

Then the following May, another driver ran into her. The wreck totaled her car. The insurance paid her $3,000, she says, but by then she had fallen behind on her bills again. "I thought about a car," Black says, "but I needed to pay my bills."

So instead of replacing her car, she took care of her financial obligations. What did she do with the money that was left? "Bought two pairs of shoes for each of the kids, an outfit for my mom," and with the last little bit of it, "took the kids to Carowinds."

Engaged

She never mentions the man by name, just calls him her fiance. Like her, he was in recovery and making progress when they decided to get married. It would happen in July 2001, they agreed, and Black bought a wedding dress. The couple applied to Habitat for Humanity to try and qualify for a home of their own. They posed for a portrait, Black's manicured hands folded to show off the ring that cost $1,800.

The man and the ring are both gone now. He relapsed and pawned the engagement ring for drug money in an act Black discusses resolutely, fully aware of everything it represented. The amount he got for it? "Thirty dollars."

Breaking The Cycle

Just when there seemed to be no hope ­ this past August and September when the bills were so badly overdue that utilities were getting turned off ­ there was a break. It was one Black had almost been afraid to hope for: the possibility of a job in an office, with her own computer, phone line and work space. A job where she could sit down, not stand on her feet all day.

"That's always been my dream," she says.

Two Grier Heights neighborhood advocates, Cindy Murphy and Saundra Thomas, were discussing possible candidates for a project called the Building Bridges Initiative when Black's name came up. The program works to address issues around crime, safety, infrastructure and after-school activities in the neighborhood.

"I was impressed with Temika's involvement in her church, with her children and their education," says Murphy, the project's director. "She has good relationships with her neighbors and she's a straight talker. She could identify with the needs and understand the goal."

Thomas adds, "She's an exceptionally resourceful person, with energy and self-motivation." Upon hearing Thomas' words, Black looks down, but not far enough to completely hide her smile.

In September 2001, Black was hired as one of two community liaisons for the program. She now works in an office not far from her home. Instead of a fast-food uniform, she wears skirts and suits and heels. She's got her own business card. When you call her office, her voicemail message reminds you to "have a very productive day." So far the job is part-time, but Black wants to work full-time.

"I like what I'm doing ­ I want to see this neighborhood as a better place for our children," she says. "I'm still nervous. I'm outspoken and got to bring it down a bit. I want to do the right thing. I want to do a good job. That's why I make myself nervous."

When Black told her friends that someone was writing an article about her, a few were wary. But Black is determined to tell her story, especially when she remembers how hopeless it all once seemed.

"Back then I used to think there was nobody worse off than me," she says. "My pastor said, 'There's always somebody worse off. Whatever you're going through, somebody else is going through, too.'

"It took me a minute to find Him. I'm still going through, but I still have His mercy and grace. I want my story told because I know there's somebody who has it worse than me."

Looking Ahead

On Election Day, Black caught a ride to her polling place. After she voted, she took her children to the Kids Voting booths and showed them how to fill out the ballots.

"Hey, who did you vote for?" one of the school employees yelled across the parking lot.

"I'm not telling you who I voted for," Black answered.

"Tell me and I'll make sure your kid gets into East Meck," the man teased.

"My kid is going to East Meck whether you say she can or not," she replied, not angry, just patient and certain of how it would be.

Every now and then, Black gets together with her girlfriends to "play pool and act like fools." She loves dancing and all kinds of music, from jazz to hip-hop to classical. Unlike her friends from her days in the streets, Black's new friends are women claiming their places in the professional world.

"I'm a professional, too," Black is quick to point out.

Even though it's been 10 years since he died, Black still talks to her father. On his birthday, she goes to Oaklawn Cemetery with her grandparents. They celebrate his life, and before they get in the car to go home, they put a piece of birthday cake on the grave.

"I did exactly what he asked me to do," Black says. "He sees me now."

Her mother is proud of her. "We grew up together, and I made some mistakes," Williams says, then her voice gets thick with emotion. "My daughter has made a serious difference in my life."

Black has just reached three years' sobriety, a recovery "birthday," but the man she had planned to marry is in Pennsylvania, still powerless over his own addiction. "He's not sober, and I don't want that in my life," she says. "And I don't want a relationship until I get back on my feet."

Catching a ride to work one day, Black sees a For Rent sign on a little brick house on a hill. She asks to pull over. Some men are working on the place. "How much is the rent?" she leans across the driver and asks through the open window.

"Eight hundred a month."

"Eight hundred? Whose house is this?"

The man walks closer to the car, tells her the owner's name. "But he'll take Section 8," he says, then gets a look at Black. "I'll pay half," he offers.

Her expression is hard to read. Is she flattered? Not likely; she's heard this kind of talk plenty of times before.

"What's your name?" he asks.

"Temika."

"Hey, Temika. . ."

Just then a car comes over the hill too fast and startles everyone. The conversation ends.

While she dreams of having her own place, for now she and her kids will stay in the apartment complex where they've lived since Black completed treatment three years ago. There's no washer, dryer or dishwasher, but the apartment has air-conditioning and Black has hung lace curtains on the windows and family portraits on the walls.

At her job with the Building Bridges Initiative, she's earning about $380 twice a month before taxes. Her rent is subsidized, but if her income continues to go up, so will her rent. Already the food stamp money has decreased from $436 a month to $318. Regardless, Black states firmly, "Everything is starting to balance out." She has a savings account, and a plastic Bank of America card to prove it. Just having the card in her wallet gives her a good feeling.

On her days off, she catches up on her sleep, cleans house, and cooks big, family-style Southern meals. Sometimes it's canned salmon fried into patties and served with grits; sometimes it's chicken, greens and potato salad. Last week's trip to the Family Dollar store for paper goods, toiletries and cleaning supplies ­ items you can't buy with food stamps ­ cost $74.80.

The total amount she spends on this grocery shopping trip is $262.96, which includes store discounts of $34.03. Without being told, the kids help unpack and put away the groceries. In the months when she has enough money left over, Black will ride with a friend to the Westside Meat Center, which sells a pre-priced, $126-package of assorted meats that the family can stretch to last for several weeks.

On this shopping day, it's 3 o'clock before Black can stop long enough to eat some lunch, and the headache she's had since morning finally starts to loosen its grip.

Blessings

Over a meal of sausage, eggs, potatoes and biscuits, she asks the blessing. "Father God, we thank You for this food. . ."

She's supposed to go to court over child support with one daughter's father. She doesn't sound bitter or angry when she says, "I get tired of going down there." And even when she does get angry, she doesn't cry. "I'm tired of wasting my tears. I want to cry tears of joy," like she did when a niece learned the sign language to R. Kelly's inspirational song, "I Believe I Can Fly."

Her wish list is a short one: "By the time I'm 33 in July 2002, I want to have a car and something toward a house." She has her eye on a 1990 Maxima that a friend might be willing to sell. "Then I could really take my kids and do things."

Black has no doubt her children can be anything they want ­ from a writer to a model or a basketball star ­ and she has no patience for people who are "trifling."

"I want my kids to have a better environment, and to know something besides poverty. I don't care if I have to sit on the corner and sell every inch of my body ­ my children will have what they need. I want to have something to leave my babies."

Asked if she has advice for anyone facing similar struggles, Black doesn't hesitate. "Dry your tears. Put one foot in front of the other. Ask and you will receive. Pray ­ He is alive. Blessings do come every day."

And she has one more word of practical encouragement:

"If you have a roof over your head and canned goods, you can make it." *


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