How much money does a single parent with two children need for housing, food, transportation and other basic living expenses?
If you guessed North Carolina’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, consider yourself hopelessly out of touch. The magic number is $25.83 an hour – or $53,727 annually – according to a new economic mobility report from the John M. Belk Endowment and MDC, a nonprofit Durham-based research group.
For Octavious Young, a single dad with two children, $53,727 a year doesn’t sound like a basic living wage. It sounds more like an unreachable dream.
Young, at 38, brings home just $9 an hour as a construction apprentice.
“I want to be able to give my kids the same opportunity that privileged children have,” the soft-spoken Charlotte resident told me last week as he took a break from hauling and tying rebar rods for the foundation of a new apartment complex. “Sometimes, you lose the hope.”
We’ve been having an extended discussion here in Charlotte about why we rank among the nation’s worst big cities when it comes to economic mobility. We convene task forces and panel discussions. We analyze statistics and studies and theories.
But if you really want to understand what life at the bottom is like, talk to someone like Young.
He dropped out of high school years ago to work and help his struggling family. He knows he can’t make more money now unless he gets more education. But he can’t fit more education into a schedule that already includes a full-time day job followed by full-time parenting at night.
On the day I met him, Young had gotten to work a little late because the woman who keeps his kids arrived late. “All I could do is pray that they would understand,” he said of his supervisors on the construction site off Statesville Avenue.
His kids are actually his niece and nephew, whom he took in when they appeared headed for foster care. He is a fervent Christian and self-described “people person.” If being an instant father made his tough road tougher, he doesn’t seem to mind.
He does mind the less-than-pristine house he lives in just north of uptown. But the rent is cheap, and he can’t afford better. The apprenticeship isn’t lifting him out of poverty, but it’s giving him a shot at learning better skills and earning better pay down the road.
The apprenticeship represents a far more promising hand up than most people in his situation receive. He owes it to the kindness of former Charlotte City Council member Ron Leeper. Leeper, sick of seeing young men like Young wither away, started his own apprenticeship program at his construction firm, with Young as his first apprentice.
He put Young on his company payroll, and told his subcontractors to let Young rotate among their crews, helping out and learning the trades. If one trade seems to be a good match, Young will get to dive deeper and gain expertise over time.
It’s the kind of helping hand that could change Young’s life, and his children’s lives. In the old days, he could have gotten a job in a textile plant or furniture factory and made out OK. But those days – and those jobs – are long gone.
Today’s blue-collar jobs require skills and training. You can’t just walk in off the street to do them – and unless you have a Ron Leeper behind you, you can’t learn and get paid at the same time.
Young knows he’s lucky. He sees Leeper as a sort of businessman version of Martin Luther King Jr.
Plumbers and pipefitters, like the ones laying pipe at his construction site last week, make about double Young’s apprenticeship pay. If he can gain their level of expertise, he’d find himself within shouting distance of a true living wage to raise his kids on.
Children raised in households like his, in the lowest fifth of the income spectrum in North Carolina, stand a 1 in 4 chance of making it to the middle class and just a 4.4 percent chance of making the upper class, according to the Belk Endowment report.
Even in North Carolina’s economically dynamic urban areas, the report says, “people who grow up in low-income families are more likely to stay there as adults than almost anywhere else in the nation, and only small numbers make it to the middle- or upper-income levels.”
Leeper wants to see local governments push such apprenticeship programs. He wants to see more private businesses get involved. Many are, but more need to join in.
Young knows nothing’s going to turn around for him overnight. It’s a long, wearying process.
“I just take it one day at a time and be thankful for what I do have,” he said. “I’m a Godly person. I want to be able to touch other people. This ain’t what” – he was about to say that this isn’t everything God has for his life. But he catches himself. He knows what it feels like to be homeless. Who knows what tomorrow might bring?
“I’m praying this isn’t all God has for me. But it’s a start. The fact that He hasn’t taken His eyes off me is more than enough.”
Eric: 704-358-5145; firstname.lastname@example.org.