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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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To have and have not: 'Money comes and goes'
For Essie McCoy, Madison is a good place to be poor
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Credit:Carolyn Fath

Essie McCoy came to Madison four years ago looking for a better life.

The 34-year-old, her husband and five kids had been living in Michigan, but there was no work to be found. So they hopped on a bus and moved here, where McCoy's sister lives.

The family's first stop was the Salvation Army, which put them up in a hotel for three months, until they had saved enough to get an apartment. McCoy and her husband got jobs at McDonald's for about six months, officially entering the ranks of Madison's working poor.

McCoy is now in a job training program, working at the Goodman Community Center's food pantry, where she makes $7.25 an hour. That works out to an annual income of about $15,000. The job ends this summer, so she's looking for other work.

McCoy says that Madison is, for the most part, a good place to be poor. It's much cheaper and more caring than Chicago, where she grew up. "A lot of people donate a lot of money here," she says. "Churches donate it, families. Madison is a very caring town.

"It's hard to make it, but you can get by with help here," she adds. "In Chicago they don't give you nothing."

The family rents a three-bedroom apartment on the north side of town for $805 a month. Utilities are $100 a month. The family doesn't have cable. Their car, a 2000 Dodge minivan, was recently paid off.

Food is another big expense: "I have growing kids who eat 24 hours a day. I probably spend $800 on food a month."

McCoy has student loans from college - she has a degree in early childhood development from MATC - but these have been deferred. She also has credit card debt, but she's given up making payments for now. "They call me. I tell them I don't have their money."

For her children's clothes, McCoy gets mostly hand-me-downs from relatives and shops secondhand. "I shop the pawn shops a lot. I go to used stores to get them what they want," she says. "Luckily my kids aren't really flashy."

She's also found that kids don't necessarily want expensive things.

"I usually try to take my kids to the free stuff, the museums, the library, the zoo," she says. "Kids don't need a lot of flashy stuff, they just need something to do. You can spend a whole lot of money and they won't remember it. You can do something for free and they remember it just as much."

McCoy admits that having children young - she had her eldest daughter when she was 16 - made it tougher to get ahead, as is the case with many other poor people. "I always wanted the best for my daughter, but being so young I took what I could get."

Her daughter is now set to go to college in Michigan next year. This summer, McCoy hopes to take the family to the Dells for a vacation. "That's all we can afford. Let them all be together before she goes away."

McCoy doesn't have a particularly long wish list. "I've been poorer than what I am, so I appreciate everything I have," she says. "I appreciate having a roof and food for my kids. I rarely think about what I don't have.

"What I need, I'm going to have," she adds. "There's a difference between want and need."

Her advice for anyone who should suddenly fall on hard times: "You have to pray. If you lose everything, you can always get it back again. Money comes and goes."

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