THELMA HAMPTON STRODE purposefully to the door of the basement apartment on 11th Street NW to admit a visitor. Hampton's sturdy frame folded solidly in a straight chair and she surveyed pridefully the neatness, and the warmth of framed family pictures. After a few minutes of quiet talk, arms tense beside her, she hurled the word:
"Pressure!" It sounded like a bellow because the talk had been so soft. "There's a lot of pressure out here. A lot of it involves money."
The 18 percent inflation rate that has sent shock waves through official Washington and the nation has particular poignancy for people like Thelma Hampton. She supports her family of four on $585 a month take-home pay.
Hampton always keeps a pot of beans or peas simmering on the stove, shunning convenience foods. She says she is "blessed" with privately subsidized housing, limits paid entertainment other than an occasional movie to "maybe twice a year," purchases clothing "a piece at a time," and knows " where every brown penny" goes.
She forces the tension from her pleasant face. "A lot of the pressure happens to the little people," she says.
"Last week Giant and Safeway had chickens on sale. I was frustrated because I only had $30 and I knew I had to stretch the money. Mostly I put half of it on chickens. I told my family we would be eating chickens until we fly. Then I went to Okie Market in Northeast to catch the dented canned goods.
"My son and older daughter are looking for jobs. I feel like I'm making it to a degree, but then a lot of my friends are not making it as well as I am."
Hampton's little economic boat is predictably precarious. A divorcee, she is the sole support of L'Tonya, 13, Lynda, 14, and David, 16.
Every two weeks, Hampton brings home $292.55 from her job as a custodian at the FBI Building. Thirty-eight percent of her total take-home pay, or $220, goes to pay the rent on a three-bedroom apartment with well-outfitted kitchen, washer and dryer. The price includes utilities. Her landlord is the nonprofit For Love of Children (FLOC), for whom she occasionally provides emergency temporary housing to a displaced family in return for reduced rent.
"Before I got this place, last November, I couldn't afford the $400 to $450 a month they were asking for two bedrooms." She is conveniently located on several buslines.
Food take $100 each month, or about 18 percent of her take-home pay.
"I feel with food and stuff being so high I wish I could get just a little help. I tried to get food stamps but was overqualified." No Hamburger Helper and costly prepared foods at her house -- Hampton buys 20-pound bags of potatoes and frozen greens at 3 pounds for 99 cents from Murray's, and makes soups and spaghetti. "Occasionally I'll buy a roast on sale," she says. She takes her dinner to work.
Hampton's children are among the estimated 41 percent in Washington who live only with their mothers. For the nation overall, only 15 percent of American children live only with their mothers, according to the Children's Defense Fund.
Hampton gives the children small allowances and lunch money and her government-subsidized health plan provides all health needs except dental.
"A lot of times things are given to them and to me. I buy clothing a piece at a time. Myself, I haven't bought anything in so long I can't remember. My children are in the public eye more than I am so I concentrate on them. When they need something, I just skip paying a bill."
The realities of economics have made some single household heads feel overextended.
Hampton, spunky and goal-oriented at 39, seems to have a determination for her family's emotional survival that roughly equals that of the little engine that could. Yet she hurls the word "pressure" again. In her North Carolina accent, it comes out, "purr-resh-ur."
She once led a picket line of parents to demand more discipline at the junior high school of one of her children. She attends school board meetings, talks openly and often with all three about sex, and motivates them to help cook and clean.
Other expenses include a $10 biweekly Metro pass for the bus ride to work, three life insurance policies with small premiums, old dental bills, store accounts and furnishings. "I'm on a budget," she said, "but it's very hard."
Hampton holds her mental health together with "a male friend," her church, and her volunteer work with the FLOC-sponsored program, where she gains moral support from helping women with similar concerns and values.
She minimizes stress with her hopes. "Growing up in North Carolina, I always wanted to be a nurse. I feel like even now I still want to be that nurse. Once my children finish high school, and I see what direction they take . . ."
Eighteen percent inflation is tougher on Thelma Hampton than many, as her spending power continues to nosedive. But emerging into the sunlight after she firmly closes the door, I remember her parting shot. With eyes warm, she allowed, "The more frustrating things get . . . the more determined I am to make it."