Seventeen-year-old Erma Hinton started working for the District's summer job program on June 30. For six weeks thereafter, it was all work and no pay. She finally received her first paycheck last Thursday.
It is Erma's fourth summer with the city. "Every summer," she says, "it's gotten worse." This year she ended up having to borrow from her mother, a part-time cleaning lady, to get to and from work.
She had planned to use the summer's earnings to help her family make ends meet. She had, of course, counted on paying her own bus fare to work, and wanted to buy clothes to wear back to Dunbar High School where she is a senior. She also planned on replacing a contact lense she lost last winter.
It didn't turn out that way.
For the past three summers, she had been a daycare aide, but this time around -- with her mother's encouragement -- she wanted secretarial experience to gain job skills for after graduation. "My mother keeps telling me to keep typing and that'll help me out in the long run. So, I keep doing it," she says.
During her first six weeks as a part-time clerk-typist at the District's Health Planning and Development Agency, Erma not only typed but learned to operate a word processing machine and saw the inner workings of bureaucracy. t
She admits she was distracted by trying to track down her paycheck. She often felt like quitting, but her mother told her, "If you quit, people will say that you aren't reliable. So, keep right on working, child, don't quit now."
She reluctantly stayed, aware that her mother wanted her to have a better life.
Her mother, 53-year-old Erma Andrews, is in failing health and can only work part-time.
"I've had two heart attacks and a tumor removed in the past couple of years," Andrews explained. "The bills got piled up on me when I was in the hospital. But there ain't no money in this house."
Erma lives with her mother and a brother, the last of her mother's six children at home, in an apartment in Shaw. On either side, all the way down the block, are boarded-up houses with 4-foot-high weeds where passersby pitch beer cans and other trash.
She has not friends in the area -- in her opinion, most young people there are hoods -- so she returns to the Capitol Hill neighborhood her family left five years ago to visit her old friends, people she says are like her. A shy, sensitive girl, Erma hopes to use her job skills as a way out.
"I hate this area," she complains. This is a bad neighborhood to live in."
For what seemed to be the one thousandth time, Erma went to Youth Employment for the Summer (YES) headquarters last Thursday. Earlier that day, a YES official told Erma to come claim her check. When it was finally handed to her, there was no smile. "I won't believe it until I get it cashed," she said.
She'll have to use a considerable amount, she said, to cover her debts, the money she borrowed from her mother and from a close friend.
Even though her mother kept her on the job and encouraged her throughout the summer, she finally was as discouraged as her daughter about the jobs program.
"These black, poor kids don't have anything going for them anyhow," she said, "and when they try to get out and do something for themselves, they're right back where they started."