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Getting By

In some ways, the three families profiled here—one well off, one middle class, one working poor—couldn’t be more different. In income, in possessions, in prospects, they stand on separate economic rungs. Yet each in its own way feels uneasy about money. Do they have enough? Will they have enough? Will there ever be a time when they no longer worry? Rich or poor, their answers are surprisingly similar.

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Lizzie Monzón (center) and her five kids (from left): Idania Marie, 21 (with her son, Nevin, 1); Juan, 3, with Manuel, 17; Cecilia, 4; and Marilyn, 13

Lazara Ester “Lizzie” Monzón, 43
Occupation
: Cleanup worker, CCA Fire Restoration
Income: $7 an hour; no benefits. Defined as poverty (below living wage)
Savings: None
Retirement: Relying on Social Security

Money is a simple concept for Lizzie Monzón, one that comes down to bitter choices. Should she fix the brakes on her van-lately grinding metal on metal-or avoid being two weeks late on the rent? Should she pay the full heating bill or buy a modest birthday gift for one of her children? Should she try to save a paltry $5 a month, or keep that pittance on hand in case the family needs a bar of soap or a few rolls of toilet paper?

Such are the dilemmas of a $7-an-hour single mother trying to provide for five children, including one with autism. “It’s very difficult,” says Monzón, who came to the United States 30 years ago when her mother and father emigrated from Cuba. “It comes down to pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters to pay the rent every month. Sometimes I have to make spaghetti without sauce. Sometimes I have to make eggs and rice. My children say, ‘Again?’ I tell them, ‘You’ve got to work with me until I get my paycheck on Friday. Then we’ll see what we need from the grocery store.’”

To earn her hourly wage, Monzón works for a company, CCA Fire Restoration, that helps restore burned-out buildings. For her, that means clawing through the rubble and ashes of a charred structure for anything salvageable-cups and Tupperware and picture frames. She packs the items and then spends her day cleaning them at the company’s warehouse.

Supplementing her income are $293 a month in food stamps and a few hundred dollars in child support from her ex-husband. “I don’t even make $800 [a month],” she says. With rent for her three-bedroom house in Alsip costing $1,300 a month, she doesn’t use terms like “discretionary income.”

“You know how long it’s been since I have been to a store to buy something for myself?” she asks. “A long time.” She moved to Alsip from Chicago 12 years ago because, she says, “I wanted a place where my children wouldn’t have to face gangs and drugs. Plus, the schools are so good here. I don’t want to take them back to the North Side of Chicago again.” She says the owner of the house offered to sell it to her, but she told him, “I’m in no position to afford a house. I’m just barely making ends meet.”

She is looking for a cheaper home, but uprooting her family again would bring fresh trauma to her children. One of them, Idania Marie, 21, graduated from college and now has a retail job. Her other children include Marilyn, 13, Cecilia, 4, and Juan, 3. Her older boy, Manuel, 17, suffers from autism, a malady that magnifies the family’s hardships. When Monzón let slip that she was looking for a cheaper home for the family, for instance, “he starts to cry and says, ‘Are we moving again?’” she says.

Meanwhile, her tight budget necessitates stark choices. She recently delayed paying her rent-the third time she has been late in a year-to fix the brakes on the Dodge Caravan a friend sold her for $1,500. “Fortunately, the landlord was kind enough to wait,” she says. Occasionally she’s forced to make partial payments on things like utilities. “The bills are always escalating. Thank God I don’t have any credit cards.” Meanwhile, she says, “I’ve got a 17-year-old who eats a loaf of bread every day and a half. He tells me, ‘I’m sorry, Mother, but I need my bread.’ How can I tell my child he can’t have bread? I’m a mother first.”

Asked about retirement plans or putting money toward a college fund for her children, she manages a wry chuckle. Saving money is as out of the question as quitting her job. “I have to work,” says Monzón. “I have a car; I have a home to maintain. I can’t just sit here.” It is a reality for which she pays yet another heavy price. “Sometimes I say, I’m tired. I wish it was . . .” She pauses for a moment. “I wish it were all over. But I have to keep going on for my children.”

 

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