Job security elusive

Kamorrah Bowie, 27, graduated from high school in Port Arthur and immediately found work as a health aide and as a night-shift convenience-store attendant. A customer helped her secure her first job at a refinery.

Enjoying the work and the higher pay, she navigated the training process to gain refinery certifications. But her refinery work has been only temporary.

"You don't have job security. You go to work one day, you don't even know if you're going to have work the next day," Bowie said. "And it has nothing to do with your performance."

In an effort to gain job security, she enrolled part time at a local college, Lamar State College, to study nursing. To meet her school schedule, Bowie took a job that could offer regular, yet flexible, hours, at McDonald's. She earns $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage, and gets just more than 30 hours a week.

But on that income, she needs help to pay the bills. Her apartment is partly subsidized by a nonprofit, and she receives $200 a month in food stamps.

"I'm stressed out right now," said Bowie, tearing up.

Her take-home pay is $740 a month. Her rent is $600. "I have to keep the insurance on my car. That's the only thing I did pay this month -- that's $55."

"I'm struggling right now. I'm struggling," she said. "My boyfriend, he's cutting grass right now. Hopefully the man he's working for will pay him enough money."

Kamorrah Bowie © Microsoft

Kamorrah Bowie

Bowie said she's too embarrassed to go to her mother, and her sister is in worse shape than she is, "because she has two kids." Her brother, Emery Bowie, 25, was killed in a refinery accident in 2007 while running heavy equipment for a subcontractor.

Like many in Port Arthur's younger generation, Bowie is not politically active. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 "only because he was our first black president."

She has not followed the president's policies and doubts that leaders in Washington, D.C., understand people in her situation.

"I've got so much going on with trying to remember when the lights are going to get turned off or when the cable's going to get shut off," she said. "Obama, in the White House, his cable is on. His lights are on.

"So I have to worry about my own self. That's being selfish, I know."

Feeling marginalized

Port Arthur remains one of the few Democratic strongholds in Texas, and in the South, but few vote, particularly in local races.

This summer, Regina Drake, a local who registers voters, contacted Bowie. She asked about Bowie's school and her jobs.

"How do you feel about employment in this area?" Drake asked.

"It sucks," said Bowie. "You gotta know somebody."

Drake explained that the City Council could create contracts with the refineries that influence hiring practices and that the council could stimulate business activity so that services, such as restaurants and bookstores, would be available downtown, instead of miles away by car.

"These professional politicians -- if you call, they're going to call you back," Drake said. "And just put your voice out there: What kind of training programs can be out there? What kind of collaborations can be put in place?"

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After a 10-minute conversation, Bowie said she would vote.

"I think my vote would make a difference," she said. "If I was to put my voice out there, it would be an extra voice."

Later, Drake said: "I think people are unaware of the power they have. Part of that is they don't feel they're a part of the society."