Profiles in survival: Tracey Johnston

by Jordan Green

Tracey Johnston pulls out a sheaf of paper certificates from a black binder and displays them next to her pay stub from Guilford Security Agency, which together encompass the investment and return on her working life, not to mention the cash flow that allows a family to continue from one day to the next.

Johnston, who lives with her two teenage sons in the Claremont Courts public housing community, had been frustrated in her last job as a nurse’s aide. She wasn’t paid for travel time between home visits nor reimbursed for gas. After tax withholding she didn’t have much to show for it.

So in the spring of 2006 she decided to retrain, signing up for the Quick Jobs program at GTCC. She put in 150 hours and received a certificate for office specialist. She has another certificate called “Highways to Success” and still another one from the Women’s Work Program. Going back before 1991, when she followed her sister south from New York to Greensboro, Johnston earned a beautician’s certificate from the Wilfred Academy and a nursing assistant certificate from the Upjohn school. She earned her high school diploma in 2002.

“When I got out in search of the job, a lot of employment services were saying it was good that I had the skills, but because of my lack of prior work experience they didn’t know anybody who would hire me,” Johnston says.

The retraining effort took a physical and emotional toll, and she had to go on welfare for about half the year.

“When I tried to juggle that, it was too much; it was not profitable,” Johnston says. “I cried like a baby.”

And yet she bounced back, enrolling in GTCC’s sociology program. She hopes to earn an associates degree, and after that a bachelors and a masters so she can continually improve her earnings. In the meantime, after her frustrated attempt to retrain as an office specialist, Johnston decided to give up work as a nurse’s aide and was hired on as a security guard assigned to safeguard Procter & Gamble products at a warehouse in Browns Summit.

During the school year, she’s at work before her boys get out of bed. She gives them a wake-up call from the warehouse, and Marcus, her oldest son, helps his younger brother get breakfast.

Johnston is back home by three, an hour ahead of her sons. That gives her time to change out of her work clothes and catch her breath. When the boys get home around 4 p.m. she starts supper. At 6:15, she leaves for her class at GTCC and doesn’t return until after 9. She’ll eat before or after class, depending on whether she’s ahead or behind in her responsibilities.

“It’s hectic, but I try and try and try,” Johnston says. “Usually when I come in,

I’m pressing clothes, making sure everybody’s ready for the next day and checking homework.”

Her 32 hours of labor at the warehouse every week net Johnston $987 in take-home pay each month. A gas bill averaging at about $150 eats into those earnings, along with a phone bill that comes to about $30. Electricity costs about $45 but Johnston expects it to double when she installs air conditioning this summer. Auto insurance has been $234 a month to cover both Johnston and her daughter, who is a freshman at NC A&T University. That will come down to $189 this coming month. When her last car started falling apart, Johnston bought a used car valued at $2,300. Financing costs for the car are about double its value. Monthly payments come to $256.

“If I get a financial blessing I’ll pay for it straight out,” Johnston says. “If I don’t I’ll have to give it up.”

That’s not even counting her subsidized rent, which is calculated at $242 relative to Johnston’s earnings.

What’s left over is about 30 dollars.

Her family receives $167 in food stamps each month; Johnston estimates she spends $180 to $200 to buy extra food, not to mention clothing and household necessities.

“I’m buying detergents and lotions, and everybody has to do their hair,” she says. “With my two sons getting older it doesn’t get any cheaper, with their expensive jeans and T-shirts they like to wear.”

Her youngest son, James, is supposed to leave for summer camp on Monday. As it happens, that’s when she gets paid. She’ll pay the rent and utilities, make a car payment, put gas in the car and buy food. There won’t be much left over to buy the things James will need for camp. She’ll be calling on family members to see if anybody can scrounge a gym bag for her son to pack 10 days worth of clothes.

“I want him to go desperately,” Johnston says, “to get help with life skills and math, and to have social activities.”

Johnston’s mother, Daisy Holland, is a member of the Greensboro Minimum Wage Committee, which seeks to raise the city’s minimum wage to $9.36 an hour. Marcus accompanied the committee co-chair, a white lawyer named Jim Boyett, to the flea market on Highway 29 one Saturday about two months ago to collect signatures to get the proposal included as a ballot initiative in November.

“Some of the people said, ‘If you lazy and ain’t worth that, why should you get paid that?'” Marcus recounts. “Some people said you should get paid that because the economy needs to get better for the next generation.”

“How about the present generation?” his mother asks. “Did they say anything about that.”

Marcus shrugs.

Like many, Johnston was attracted to Greensboro by its relative safety, slow pace and quality of life. In New York she worried that her children would be swept up in the criminal justice system.

“I lived in an area where children were

small and overnight they grew up and became drug dealers,” she says. “I saw how the police treat young people. You see these young mothers with baby carriages. Lots of times their boyfriends would have them carrying drugs in the baby carriage, so when the police come they can run away. The police were looking all the time. And I figured there would come a time that they would stop me and want to look at me and my baby.”

Jobs were more plentiful in Greensboro than they are now, and Johnston says the lines at local agencies were nowhere near as long as in New York. Now, she says, the economy has “dwindled drastically.”

Not that Claremont Courts is exactly the destination she had in mind when she evaded that nightmare future in New York.

“We don’t like it, but we stand it,” Johnston says. “If I had a better salary I could be in a community where it would be better to raise my children.”

The drawbacks of her public housing community, she says, is “a lot of gang-related activity and violence. I don’t know where it comes from. There’s lots of people out of work. They’re outside looking for something to keep themselves entertained. They get angry and they’re fighting.”

Johnston is quick to add: “We don’t complain. We count our blessings. We ask the Lord if we can do better.”

A minimum wage increased to $2,263 would barely put a dent in Johnston’s expenses. Contemplating the surplus, she recites the various tricks for stretching a dollar to cover food and clothing costs, such as buying cases of cans of corn and a large bottle of shampoo.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want a citywide raise; she can practically taste it.

“People will probably be a lot happier and less worrisome, more relaxed,” she says.

“They will feel there would be more stability. When people feel they can make more money and they don’t worry about how they’re going to feed their family and clothe themselves, I think they can think about family leisure and a vacation, going out of state to visit loved ones or treating their family to eat out once in awhile or go to a movie. They’ll be less angry at the world.”

And to modify the Bible verse: To whom much is given more can be expected.

“I believe when people are happy, they feel they have an abundance,” Johnston says. “They share what they have, and they give, whether that be charity or sponsoring a camp trip, or if you feel good about your paycheck you might pay for your buddy’s lunch.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at