TAMEKA, 33

"I could have done better with my life, you know, but I didn't."

Tameka cannot conceal her disappoint when she talks about her life. She is 33 years old, lives with her 13-year old daughter in a pleasant townhome in a small Maryland town, and she thinks she could have done better. Raised by working, middle-class parents, she feels like she “messed up” by not going from high school to college. “My dad was in the military,” says Tameka, “so I'm different than I would say most black girls because I had a little bit more of an opportunity to succeed just because my father stayed on me.”

Tameka has positive memories of her childhood. Because of her father’s military career, she lived all over the world growing up, including Italy, Germany, England, Florida, and Oklahoma. Her parents married young and are still together. Yet it was also Tameka’s strict upbringing—she did not get along with her parents “because of their strong Christian background”—that drove Tameka to move in with her boyfriend at eighteen. She was pregnant at twenty and a mom by twenty-one. Her boyfriend had a good factory job, but unfortunately, he was also abusive: “he punched, I'm talkin' like punched me in the face, kicked me in the stomach when I was pregnant, everything.”

Desperate to leave the situation, Tameka returned home to live with her parents, who took her in. But some of Tameka’s habits, particularly her smoking, were eventually too much for her parents to handle, and Tameka found herself with a newborn baby and no place to go. “She [her daughter] was like three months then, and I was homeless for a while.”

After living with a friend for a time, Tameka eventually moved in with another boyfriend. She admits going “from job to job to job to job” in those years because she would not show up to work on time. And while relationships provided some relief, “it was basically a series from bad relationship to bad relationship.” Today, she has sworn off relationships to focus on her daughter, although she has a “friend” in Baltimore with whom she talks every day. She says this protective reaction about her daughter stems from childhood: “I was molested when I was ten by an uncle so I don't, I'm very leery on that, like having men around her, it, it's just, I have to protect her. So, I just choose not to have anyone around her.”

Tameka spent four years in public housing, and she jumped at the chance to move into her current place, where she has been for eight years. She has one of the few subsidized units in the complex, which means she always pays just one-third of whatever income she makes, no matter how large or small. While she initially saw this move as an improvement, she thinks the complex has gone downhill since she moved in. As Tameka puts it, no one is getting shot, but people play dice and do drug deals, play loud music at all hours, and young people sit outside in their cars drinking, even early in the morning.

Tameka started to cook at an early age, and most of her jobs have been in food service. Most recently, she worked for three years as a cake decorator at Food Lion supermarket (“I absolutely loved it”) and then eight months wrapping meat at Sam’s Club, a job that ended about seven months ago. She quit the job at Sam’s Club, citing conflict with her boss and the unrealistic demands of the work: “I never got my breaks on time, never got my lunch on time and it was just like, I didn’t feel appreciated.”

It was after quitting Sam’s Club that she drew Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) for the first time. In her search for new work, she spent two weeks at a poultry processing facility before deciding it was not for her. After a few months, she got two jobs at the same time: in customer service at Comcast through a temp agency, and as a part-time cook at a nursing home. The former job brought in about $350 per week, and the latter about $200 a month. But almost as quickly as she got those jobs, she lost them. At the Comcast job, Tameka came to work one morning to find herself locked out of the computer; the temporary contract had ended without a word. Tameka was upset because she thought she had a rapport with her boss: “I felt like we always had this relationship where we could talk and you know you, I felt like she should have told me.” She feels like she was fired. It was all the more disappointing because she hoped they would bring her on permanently.

Faced with the unexpected end to one job, Tameka naturally called her other employer, the nursing home, for more hours. However, when she called, she was told she had missed work, which was news to Tameka. “I'm thinkin' in my head, I just lost one job, why would I not show up to work.” According to Tameka, there was some mix up, but the end result was that she lost that job as well, just a day after losing Comcast. “So imagine,” says Tameka, “going from making three-fifty a week and about a hundred to about two-hundred every other week, to nothing.”

It was this convergence of losing two jobs at once that threw Tameka and her daughter into an almost cashless existence. Without any work and her application for TCA pending, Tameka’s only cash income for the past month has been $49 a week in court-ordered child support. Asked if she has any savings, Tameka chuckles and says, “Savings, what is that?” She is now two months behind on her $121-a-month car payment, and her car insurance has lapsed. She is extremely fortunate to live in a unit whose rent is adjusted to her income, so her rent is currently only $65 for a unit that would be close to $1,000 at market rate. Tameka thinks her cable and internet service will be turned off any day. Her $291 a month in SNAP benefits helps stretch her food budget, and she was also able to reduce the cost of her phone by moving her daughter to her mother’s plan and getting a less expensive plan for herself.

The good news for Tameka and her daughter is that Tameka has shown an ability to rebound. In fact, she was just offered a full-time cooking job at a chicken plant for $9 an hour, although it is a long drive from home, which means spending more money for gas. Tameka calls cooking “my calling,” and she once took some culinary classes until a relationship got in the way. Her friends have encouraged her to go back to school, but Tameka says, “when you have a child and there's just you, your main focus really has to be on working and paying the bills.” To add another complication, she was overpaid unemployment benefits in the past, so there is no joy at tax time. Owing almost two thousand dollars, her state tax refunds are garnished to pay the debt.

Knowing the advantages she had as a child, Tameka blames herself for how things have turned out: “I have excellent parents. It's like, it's kinda my fault that I kinda ended up this way.” Looking to the future, Tameka would eventually like to earn her associate’s degree and open a catering business or restaurant. But most of her focus on the future concerns her daughter, who is entering eighth grade. Influenced by Tameka’s father’s military service, her daughter wants to be a doctor in the Air Force, although she struggles in math. Tameka thinks her daughter will finish high school and go to college, correcting the biggest mistake she says she made. But as for her life, she is disappointed: “I feel like I could have done better with my life, you know, but I didn't.”