EVERY DAY FOR FOUR YEARS, since the baby came, her routine has been the same. Get up, dress her daughter and watch the soap operas. Recently, however, near the end of the month when the money ran out she would steal for their dinner on some afternoons. But 1980 dawned optimistically for her. She vowed her life would be different. Though 21 and a dropout, she clung to the hope that she could find a job.
"I stole steaks and stuff to sell," she told me. "For myself, I would go and maybe get a package of Great Northern Beans and tear open the package and empty them into my pocket, then go home and cook them."
She is one of tens of thousands of black young people in this city who cannot find a job. The most recent government statistics available show that nearly half the blacks in the District between 16 and 19 seeking jobs can't find them. The Urban League argues that the true percentage is closer to 70 percent. The Barry administration's energy is focused on an ambitious summer jobs project for high school students. But the tougher problem may be what happens to the products of this city's schools who can't find a job and the even tougher one of the dropouts who need to work the year round.
The young woman I talked with was short and plump, with a listless voice and diffident manner. For years she's been one of the "obsoletes" -- the young unskilled people in this city whom technology had left behind.
Unlike so many people who form the hard core of the unemployed, who have dropped out and are looking for full-time work, she didn't think she was better than the jobs beingoffered. She was willing even to take the jobs that society holds in distaste. But like many others, she can barely read, and she writes with difficulty. But she's also a human being this city (and country) can afford to waste no more than it can afford the expense and social disorder that results when young people in big cities across America are thrown on the human scrapheap.
But this young woman decided that 1980 would be different for her; that she'd no longer be a welfare junkie. She hated the life. "It is," she says, "miserable."
"My friend and I go up to the store and we steal Polish sausage, ham, salmon," she said. "Or maybe packs of hickory-smoked sausage. We sell them for $2, where the store would sell them for $3 or $4.
"I feel bad that I have to shoplift because that's not what I want to do. I want to work." We talked first at a city Department of Labor office for youth services, where she was frowning over test forms.Then later she talked as she trudged around the little one-bed room apartment in the Valley Green project on Wheeler Road SE, a third-floor walkup dominated by a television set. Her daughter was in day-care. The soap opera that was on was her favorite. "The Young and Restless," and the flickering images of jealousy, murder and gambling seemed more real to her than her own life.
"Sometimes you go in the store and you don't know whether you're going to get busted or not. But that's a chance I have to take. I don't want to ask my mother for money. She has two jobs and she's taking care of five people."
"I'd rather have my daughter get what she needs because I know that I can get for myself. She gets the best of everything. I switch price tags. I don't shop anywhere but Woodies, Esther Shops and maybe Hecht's. For Christmas I got her two coats, one for $60 and one for $24. I put a $23 price tag on the $60 coat and a $10 tag on the $24 one. That's the way I be making it with everything so high."
She leans forward and puts her hands in her chin to look at the show. As the character went on a gambling spree, she nodded solemnly. She occasionally puffs a reefer as she "watches the stories."
Her $225 montly check was spent this way: $58 for rent; $80 for food (which she used to supplement the $66 in food stamps); the $43 remaining for the telephone, clothing and laundry. "I run out of money real fast."
Listening to her, I knew that boards of education and big city school systems are going to have to look hard at the work product they turn out. The schools can't do it all, of course, but if the bungling bureaucracy was more committed to children and held itself accountable for its products, young women like these might have a fightiing chance to survive decently.
But this young woman shook of her own inertia and, when her daughter turned four years old in October, she put her in day-care and started looking for a job.
"I didn't have no luck," she said she tried for a job as a clerk. She did not have any experience. She knocked on doors all over town before her fragile resolve melted.
Then one day at a neighbor's house she met a man who said he knew of available jobs. "See Mr. Al Johnson, at the D.C. Department of Labor," she was told. "I came down and filled out an application. I had to go through a lot of red tape."
She waited for a call but said none came.
Johnson told me that his office had been unable to reach the woman. When she finally called the labor office, she was told the deadline for the jobs had passed, she said.
"I just cried. I hung up the telephone and sat down and cried. I asked my mother if she couldn't call and see if they could squeeze me in somehow." Her mother called and learned her daughter was still eligible.
When I met her, she was taking a test, and Johnson later informed her she had been accepted in a training program to renovate houses for Youth Pride Inc., the embattled black selfhelp group.
A real hope? Perhaps she will be one of the lucky ones who get off the scrap pile permanently. But the odds against it are high.
Before going to see her, I called a man who had worked with urban youngsters in New York, J. Bruce Llewellyn is now president of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., and he was despairing.
"It's not a ghetto problem," he said. "All these kids are getting to be the same. It's no longer a black problem. More whites (in America) are on welfare than there are black people. The reading scores are going down and things are getting worse. They can't make enough jails, can't hire enough cops. In New York City, a year of jail costs $15,000; it's better to send them to Harvard. The problem keeps getting bigger; the resources are finite."
Ironically as the Barry administration's showcase employment program, the massive youth summer jobs program may be a Catch-22 for the poor. With a year-round staff determined to avoid the disaster of summer 1979, more youths are being attracted to summer work, thereby increasing the size of the labor force. This further strains the few opportunities available.
And the handwriting is on the wall. The Carter administration's response has been an election-year proposal to spend an additional $2 billion on programs to help women like this prepare for and enter the world of work.
With taxpayers strapped, and in a mean mood, Congress might not approve the measure. Vernon Jordan has characterized this Congress' mood as one of "penalizing the poor."
But my new acquaintance didn't ponder such.
She turned to watch the last part of "The Young and the Restless." She felt hopeful. But the housing project was very gray in the winter afternoon.