Erica Irving: I just didn’t think about anything. I was very carefree. I was a very go-with-the-flow type of person.
She wasn’t married. She didn’t have children. She was just living in the moment.
Erica Irving: I never thought about buying a house or I never thought about having something that I would have to lease, like things that I would need credit for.
Erica Irving: I come from a family who had a bad relationship with credit. My grandmother was constantly in debt ‘cause she has a shopping addiction. My mother never had credit. So I just really wasn’t financially literate. I wasn’t literate when it came to credit.
But Erica rethought her relationship with money in February 2020 when she learned that she was pregnant with a baby girl — Shiloh.
Erica Irving: As soon as I found out I was having Shiloh, I just kind of sure it was like, Oh, like I have to get myself together. So I kind of just made a list of all the things I had to kind of put in place, the things I had to think about, what I wanted for myself, what I wanted for her, because of course it’s like, you want to get yourself together for your child, but, like, in order to take care of your child, you have to take care of you.
Erica made a plan.
She was working full-time at a [delivery-as-a-service company] in HR, dispatching calls to food delivery services. It was sort of like UberEats — but with a human dispatcher, instead of an app. Erica was making $20 an hour, and she was going to take part of her income and build a savings account for her daughter.
A close friend also got her up to speed on how to build credit — signing up for the right credit cards, understanding interest and utilization rates, and other ways to pump her score.
Erica Irving: I think that when you get to a certain age, you kind of realize that you’re not invincible and that you kind of can’t just, like, live for the day to day. You have to think about your future, where you’re going. And that’s how I feel at least.
I’m Nichole Currie, and this is Thriving, an audio documentary about our economic future together. I’ve been following 10 Philadelphians for a year to learn what it takes to make it in America. After a pandemic and so much social upheaval: What are the obstacles and opportunities we all face to economically thrive in the United States? Each person we’re following tells us something different about our collective future. In this episode: Black working mothers. We’re following Erica Irving, a 28-year-old Black mother in Northwest Philadelphia who is trying to build a better financial future for her child.
More than 61,000 Black working mothers between the ages of 20 and 34 live in Philadelphia, and they face systemic obstacles when trying to build generational wealth. Low wages, stress on the job, racism, and sometimes raising children by themselves can all make that journey challenging. However, Black working mothers are key figures in our country’s future. They are crucial leaders in an effort to break generational poverty and are often vocal about what they need to achieve this.
When I first meet Erica Irving in the fall of 2022, I ask her about Shiloh, who is now 2 years old.
Erica Irving: I love talking about her. She’s very adventurous. She loves nature. She loves being outside. She loves playing sports to an extent.
Erica lives in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, but our first meeting was over a video call instead of in person. See, Shiloh is autistic, and she can become overwhelmed and upset by new guests in their home. Shiloh is also non-verbal, meaning she doesn’t use speech to communicate. She’s hyposensitive and has low levels of sensory feedback.
Erica Irving: So if you wanted to hug her, you would have to squeeze her very tight for her to feel it. And the same thing goes with pain uh, which is really um jarring in some instances. If Shiloh falls, it could be a pretty bad fall but it won’t register to her, which can be very scary as a parent.
Erica takes these things into account when raising Shiloh.
Erica Irving: She’s just a very active child, very outgoing, very different than me. Um, chaotic and destructive, but in a beautiful way. I think she deserves the world. I think every parent thinks their child deserves the world and more.
Erica started a savings account while she was pregnant with Shiloh. She got a credit card to raise her score and with it purchased a lot of newborn items. She paid her credit card bill on time and built her score to a 717, and she was putting a few hundred dollars into Shiloh’s savings every month, anything that she could afford to set aside. And when Shiloh was born in September of 2020, things were as Erica had planned — until they weren’t.
This is what Erica told me:
Erica Irving: They gave us all a severance check of $200 and then they just kind of just said, like, peace out.
Eight months after Shiloh was born — in June of 2021 — Erica and her whole department were laid off. Erica says the company outsourced Erica’s department’s work for cheaper wages outside of the U.S.
Erica Irving: As soon as I lost my job, the first thing is like. Like my mind automatically goes to my daughter because I’m, like, I have to support her. So that was my main thing. Um, so I was just like, am I going to be able to support her?
Erica applied for unemployment, which was another challenge. Because so many people were out of work during the pandemic, the unemployment office was operating slower than normal. Erica had multiple issues. At one point she had to wait four months between checks. During that time, Erica missed a few credit card payments. She worked odd jobs in between to make ends meet, especially because she had just made a large purchase on her credit card before being laid off — it was a jungle gym specifically designed for autistic children. Erica even had to dip into Shiloh’s savings account once to help her pay a bill and buy groceries. Her credit score fell — from a healthy 717, down to 565.
Erica Irving: And it was just very disheartening to see because I was, I was doing good and I was on a steady track.
Erica eventually got her unemployment on a consistent basis. She resumed her credit card payments, but could only afford the minimum payment of $25. That’s because she got $400 a week — and it was quickly eaten up by necessities.
Erica Irving: So rent is, like, about, like $1,100, electricity, maybe $100 a month, cable and stuff, $100, phone bill, $100 …
Add it all up, and Erica’s bills alone were about $1,500 a month, not including things like groceries and clothing for Shiloh. Unemployment just barely covered the basics.
Because her checks had been stalled at the start by no fault of her own, Erica got unemployment for an extended period of time. Now in the fall of 2022 — a whole year later after Erica had first been laid off — she is still getting unemployment, and still looking for a job. The search has been challenging. She has experience in human resources — but Erica is looking for a job with very specific parameters. First, she needs to work late hours to be home with Shiloh during the day.
Erica Irving: So Shiloh right now is in occupational therapy and speech therapy. Um, and both of those things are at no cost to me, which is a huge help.
A therapist visits their home during the day — once a week — to help Shiloh with her speech and occupational therapy. Erica’s mother, Rhonda, helps out when Erica can’t be there, but Erica wants to be there every time — you know, to not miss a beat of Shiloh’s development. And in between therapy, Shiloh still needs a parent or guardian at home.
Erica Irving: And I don’t really feel comfortable putting her in daycare. Uh, I’m sure like so many of us have heard those horror stories where, of course, we’re like, you know, terrible things are happening to kids in daycare.
For the past few years, more and more news stories have emerged about daycare employees physically and verbally abusing autistic children — sometimes even at centers that are specifically designed for children with special developmental needs, where the employees are supposed to be skilled in things like behavioral therapy. Stories like this worry Erica.
Erica Irving: And those kids are verbal. Uh, my daughter is nonverbal. So I just really wanted — it was very important to me that I’m able to be with her during the day. Um so my struggle was finding a job that usually started like a late second shift, third shift.
Erica’s second condition: good pay. She’d like to get paid somewhere around $28 an hour. Because remember, Erica’s not just trying to make enough money to get by now — she wants to be able to save money for Shiloh’s future and rebuild her credit. But Erica says the job search for what she considers a “livable” wage isn’t going so well.
Erica Irving: During the pandemic, a lot of people were having these — specifically people in corporate America — were having these, like, thought pieces, I guess you could say, about how people don’t want to work. Um, but the reality is people do want to work. It’s just that we want to work livable wages. It’s just like, corporations don’t want to pay that. You know, we’re still at a minimum wage of like, what, it’s, like, $7.25, 7.50 in Philadelphia.
She’s right. The current minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour, but many employers now start workers off at $15 an hour — which is still low. That’s $3 less than the $18 average wage that is widely considered to be livable for a one-person household in Philadelphia. But according to the MIT Living Wage calculator a household of one adult and one child really needs $36 an hour to live comfortably. And that’s especially true when raising a child with special needs. For example, because of Shiloh’s sensitivities, Erica has to shop for particular foods.
Erica Irving: Shiloh, um, like most autistic children have very specific foods that they like. Um, but because Shiloh has a thing with textures and she’s very sensitive to different textures, I just have to make sure the snacks that we get are satisfying for her and packed with the things that she needs. So a lot of the snacks that she eats can be costly.
It’s also a challenge finding the right clothing for Shiloh.
Erica Irving: You know, um sometimes Shiloh doesn’t really like, you know, seams that feel a certain way. So I have to make sure I’m looking at clothes that have flat seams. And sometimes, like, clothing with flat seams can be more expensive for some reason. So it’s just, like, when you have a kid that has, like, you know, that needs certain things — ‘cause I never want, I never want her to be uncomfortable, you know — so I just have to put extra money out and I don’t mind it, but it’s just those are examples of things that I have to, you know, take into account when I’m, like, looking for jobs or just money in general.
Julie Zeglen: Unique to this group is that they’re often raising the next generation while trying to build generational wealth as well as stopping cycles of trauma.
This is Julie Zeglen, Technical.ly’s managing editor.
Julie Zeglen: They’re all seeking financial freedom for themselves for right now, but the future is always in mind.
However, several barriers prevent Black mothers like Erica from advancing and ensuring financial security in their homes.
Julie Zeglen: Some are feeling stuck in lower-level jobs because of racist bosses or systems. Some people we spoke to are advocating for better working conditions through their unions. Something that is a very concrete change that could be made would be an increased minimum wage. So the people who are working in a job like the one that Erica might be going for can still, I dunno, can make ends meet, um, while working reasonable hours.
One thing a lot of Black working mothers spoke about is how they will know that they’ve “made it.”
Julie Zeglen: Something we heard across the project was that people’s definition of thriving is being able to put bills on autopay, being able to go to the grocery store and not tally up how much you’re spending with every individual item. Just knowing that whatever the total is, you’ll be able to cover it. And that came up for this group in particular, too.
But until most Black working mothers reach that finish line, they depend a lot on the community and themselves to get by.
Julie Zeglen: I think there’s a sense of needing to make it work however you can, whether that be relying on members of your community to help out, relying on family, pulling together gig work, or working for yourself so that you can make your own hours and therefore be more attentive to your kids.
By September of 2022, Erica gets the chance to be more present and attentive to Shiloh. She finally landed a new job.
Erica Irving: Right now, I am doing, like, 9-1-1 dispatching. Uh which is a very interesting job.
She’s dispatching for a company named Ambulnz by DocGo. They provide affordable and accessible medical transportation for those in need. It’s full-time work. She works three to four days a week, for 10- to 14-hour shifts. Erica works the late night shift. Her schedule looks like this: She starts her shift at 4 p.m., and she works until 2 a.m.. She gets a few hours of rest, before Shiloh wakes up at 5 a.m. and wakes up Erica with her. Erica spends time with her daughter — she has breakfast with Shiloh, attends her therapy sessions, and sets up play dates and activities for Shiloh around the city that can sometimes cost money — but she has the funds to do that. Erica doesn’t sleep much on the days she works because she likes to spend as much time as she can with Shiloh. But on her off days, Erica has a more normal schedule, and she is able to catch up on sleep — if Shiloh lets her.
Even though she’s not sleeping much, Erica really loves working the night shift, and she says the pay is decent.
Erica Irving: I get $25 an hour and unlimited overtime, which is like, I mean, I’m probably not going to do it because I’m already, like, tired when I get off. But yeah, like, but the thought of knowing that, you know, overtime is there is definitely encouraging.
A check for Erica after taxes nets her around $1,700.
Erica Irving: So this job has been a huge help. ‘Cause I don’t have to like, like just pray every month to make sure that, like, I can make stuff work out. Um, so it’s been very much a blessing for me.
As soon as Erica started at this job, she immediately resumed saving. She’s depositing $300 from every check into Shiloh’s savings account. Erica still uses her credit card but she pays it off every month.
Background: So, Nichole, do you want to show Nichole your star? [fade under] Can you show?
It’s April 2023, and I’m in Erica’s living room. There’s Erica, Shiloh and Shiloh’s speech therapist.
Background: So, Nichole, she found that star in the bottom of the bag, and was very excited by it. And so she brought it over to you. I think she wanted to show you it. Can you show Nichole the star?
All around us are toys and games for Shiloh’s therapy. Because Shiloh is nonverbal, speech therapy looks like helping her utilize her other communication skills. Gestures, handing items to people, or pointing to things she wants.
Background: You were so curious about the microphone. Oh look, mommy’s looking for your microphone. Can we go over and help?
I’m feeling like a distraction — because Shiloh is very interested in my recording equipment.
Background: I see Nichole’s microphone. Look at mommy. I see Nichole’s microphone. I know, but look at mommy. Mommy’s looking for the microphone. I’m gonna go over and help. I’m gonna go help, I’m gonna go help mommy.
Towards the end of the session, Erica and I have a quick chat about what’s been going on at work while Shiloh reaches for a texture-safe snack — pork rinds, believe it or not.
Nichole Currie: Is that her favorite snack?
Erica Irving: Yeah, that’s her favorite snack. I’m sorry. It’s just, like, it’s always so interesting when her, she like, her favorite thing is just being near the window and just crunching on her snacks. Yeah, so this is her happy place, yeah.
Erica tells me that for the past four months, she’s been taking on more hours, which is a surprise to me.
Erica Irving: Yeah, so that went well. I’m very, I was very, very, I’ve been sleep-deprived. Um, I think I’m good off of that now. I think I’m gonna take a rest maybe [laughs].
Erica’s been racking up overtime, even though she hadn’t planned to when she first started the job. But she explained it to me like this: At first, she wanted to help out her understaffed department, which quickly turned into an opportunity to really make up for the financial dent from her time on unemployment — that long period when she wasn’t able to save money for Shiloh or build that generational wealth.
It’s common for people who are not privileged to do whatever they need to get ahead financially. Think about it: If you’re starting out with low capital, no investments, no savings — you’d probably do everything in your power to avoid becoming economically vulnerable again with no padding our safety net of savings to fall back on. But while she hustles for the future, Erica wants to make sure that she spends more quality time with her daughter. Like today, for example:
Erica Irving: I was going to pick up overtime today, but I was like, no, it’s going to be nice. I want to take her to the zoo. I want to do something fun.
I catch up with Erica in August of 2023 — four months after that therapy session and a year after we first met. She is no longer working overtime. She’s managed to strike a nice balance between her financial journey and having enough time to be there for Shiloh. All the while, her credit score has been climbing back up, she is just shy about 50 points shy from where it was before she lost her job.
Erica Irving: I feel like I did a total 180 and I’m so happy for it. I’m really, I’m really, like, sometimes I do cry because this time last year, I was in a really bad place. I just felt, like, so helpless. And to feel like I’m in control of my life is really amazing.
Shiloh’s savings account is also growing. It’s got thousands of dollars in it now. Erica is really proud of that.
Erica Irving: I just want to give her everything. ‘Cause a lot of people have this thing in their head that, like, their children owe them things. And, like, I always say to some of my friends, like she doesn’t owe me anything, but I owe her everything because I brought her here.
One way Erica is bringing this ideology to life is for Shiloh’s upcoming birthday. And Erica has quite a list of gifts lined up for her daughter.
Erica Irving: So right now it’s gonna be like a tool bench, like a workbench that has, like, you know, hammers and stuff like that and screwdrivers, saws ‘cuz like I do a lot of DIY projects in the house and usually she sits behind me and like, mimics it so, like, now she can do that with me. You know, I’m thinking about that. She likes, she’s really into jewelry. So I got her, like, a lot of, like, jewelry. So I got her early this nice little, you know, like, this nice little gold bracelet with her name engraved on it. Um because she likes to get really cute.
And a few more other things.
Erica Irving: I have this nice little bean bag chair, and then I have a drawing desk for her. And then the last thing, you know, the last thing and it’s something I’m debating when I’m not really sure yet. The last thing is gonna get an Amazon Fire tablet …
Shiloh turned 3 on Sept. 4 this year. They had a small birthday party at home with family and friends.
Erica Irving: And, like, I have the theme being “young wild and three,” so it’s a good jungle theme.
Shiloh got everything she wanted and more — and Erica finding a job that suited her needs was a big help.
Erica Irving: And that’s how I always like with me and Shiloh do, like, I just try to lead with love and I try to lead with her you know, in mind with everything that I do. So I’m hoping I’m able to break generational curses, and I hope that she’s able to do much better than me in life. Not saying I’m not doing OK, cause I’m doing better than a lot of people, but I just want to make sure that I’m, like, positioning her well in life and it’s all I want as a parent.
For Thriving, I’m Nichole Currie.
Thriving is brought to you by Technical.ly and Rowhome Productions with support from the William Penn Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation.
Learn more about Thriving at technical.ly
Thriving’s executive producer is Technical.ly CEO Christopher Wink.
The series is reported, produced, and hosted by me, Nichole Currie.
Our story editor is Jen Kinney. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Mix and sound design by John Myers.
Special thanks to Technical.ly editors Christina Kristofic, Sameer Rao, and Julie Zeglen.
This episode features music from Blue Dot Sessions and Philippe Bronchtein.
Our theme music is by Flat Mary Road.
Thanks for listening.