by Jordan Green

A Grimsley Whirlie, Emily Staton left Greensboro at age 18 to attend Warren Wilson College. She graduated in 1998 with a major in human studies – “a worthless degree,” she says – and took a series of menial jobs that allowed her the flexibility to pursue creative interests such as visual arts and music. And to change course when she felt like it.

Seated on a cloth-draped recliner in a College Hill apartment stuffed with antique books arranged in plastic milk crates and some of her framed collages hung on the wall, Staton reels off a Homeric list of past remunerative engagements: dishwashing, a gig at a food bank, house painting, grocery store cashiering, kitchen work, a stint at FedEx, a job at a small crafts business, work at a photocopy store, a stretch with Asheville Courier, housecleaning and attending to a mentally disabled client.

“Usually I pick jobs that won’t demand too much of me mentally,” she says, “so I can keep my mind free for things at home – projects.”

She recently returned to Greensboro with a vague notion of pursuing a graduate degree in library science at UNCG, but it was the city itself that really beckoned her.

“The attitude of people here is so different,” she says. “People are so open-hearted. Asheville is recognized as this artist town. When you have a lot of artists in one place, there’s a snob factor.”

Staton landed her current job, a cashiering position at a small store, without much trouble. She agreed to be interviewed on condition the store remain unnamed; she likes her employers and doesn’t wish to bring them any negative attention. The store’s decision to hire her was weighted with significance for her.

“I just heard that they were hiring,” she says. “I filled out an application and got an interview. I had decided that if they didn’t hire me, Greensboro didn’t want me. I was so relieved when they did.”

Two factors in particular account for her love of the job: a management philosophy that emphasizes employee initiative and coworkers with whom she enjoys spending time.

That said, Staton acknowledges a downside endemic to the service sector, particularly when it comes to small business employers.

“The pay is horrible,” she says.

She’s working part-time, about 30 hours a week at present, but her schedule could conceivably expand to 35 hours. That’s about her limit. Anything more, she says, and the wear and tear of customer service strains her patience.

Staton describes herself as “barely scraping by” on $7.50 per hour. After withholding taxes, that amounts to about $980 per month. Her full salary of $12,600 is above the federal poverty level, but not by much.

More than half her monthly earnings is eaten up by rent. Staton lives in a two-story apartment building that affords her a modest-sized live-and-work room surrounded by a small kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. In the past she has always lived with other people, but this time around she had difficulty finding compatible housemates and decided to go it alone.

She views her cell phone – a monthly expense of $45 – as something of a luxury, but she justifies it because it’s handy to have around.

A major expense is payments on two credit cards. The annual percentage rate on the first is 12 percent, with a monthly payment of $67. The second credit card issued by Chase binds her to a monthly payment of about $20.

She missed a payment on the second card shortly after her move because the bill didn’t get forwarded in the mail on time, resulting in a $39 late fee and a jacked-up interest rate. She persuaded a call service agent to waive the fee and reduce the interest rate, reminding them of her heretofore spotless payment record.

About half her payments go to financing – a depressing realization.

“Credit cards, I know they’re really stupid to use,” Staton says. “but sometimes you want to buy new shoes, or some different groceries. I have no internet, no TV; my clothes are free or from the thrift store. When I moved here I paid my Verizon bill [with a credit card] because I had no cash. When you don’t have cash you still have to buy groceries. I can barely make the minimum payment, but I’m trying to live within my cash limits.”

She will have health insurance through December – a gift from her father.

“I hadn’t had it since I worked at FedEx,” Staton says. “It had to do with some serious intestinal problems. It’s fine now, but there were some concerns. [Insurance] would cost me a hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars a month. It’s totally unaffordable.”

When rent, the cell phone bill, credit card payments and power are subtracted from her income that leaves $308 to spend on food for the month. The figure seems like more money than she actually has to spend. At any rate, she says she sometimes gets tired of rice and beans and leans on credit to stock more exotic ingredients.

Should Greensboro implement a citywide minimum wage of $9.36, Staton would have an additional $3,385 a year to spend or save as she saw fit.

The additional income doesn’t inspire visions of a new lifestyle or new and better consumer items. Mainly, she welcomes the possibility because it would eliminate some uncertainty and provide a modicum of financial security.

“It would greatly enhance my quality of life,” she says. “I just wouldn’t feel like I was living on the edge. I would save money. That was drilled into me at a young age: Save money, save money, save money. But you can’t really save money with my income.”

Staton is like a lot of low-income college graduates employed in Greensboro’s service sector and involved in creative pursuits. She doesn’t earn enough money to meet her needs, but she likes her employers and worries that an increase in the minimum wage would create some hardship for them. Even so, she views the move favorably because most of the people she knows make ends meet with some difficulty.

“All of my friends are struggling,” she says. “If they’re not, they live with someone who is making more money or they inherited some money. I don’t know anybody who’s making a good income from just working.”

The prospect of earning upwards of $17,000 a year doesn’t tempt her to abandon her ascetic lifestyle, but with some prodding, Staton thinks of some things she could spend the extra money on.

“I live pretty minimally,” she says. “I’m not much of a drinker. I’m not a smoker. I don’t have a big salon habit.” Then she adds: “I sort of had a fantasy of putting together a book of my collages. I like making music too. There’s some equipment that would be nice to have, but I wouldn’t go hog-wild.”

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