Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and advocate for social justice who lives in Oklahoma City. This is part of her “Neglected Oklahoma” series, focused on Oklahomans who find themselves in a position where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. The people whose stories we tell are real people and their stories are true. Names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Darcy Johnson is 31 years old. She has an 11-year-old son and is raising her 10-year-old nephew.
Darcy spent a couple of semesters at a community college. Then she found out she was pregnant. The baby’s father promised to stick by her and help raise the child. “That didn’t pan out so well,” Darcy said. “After about a year, he just left.”
She worked full time and attended classes throughout her pregnancy but quit school after her son was born. ”My son was in daycare but when I was called in to work a later shift, I’d have to leave him with my mom or my sister because the daycare closed at 6.” She stopped attending classes.
Two years ago she took in her nephew, whose parents “just couldn’t get their act together.” The state gives her $89/month in TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) payments. “$89 doesn’t go far but I can’t bear to see him in foster care. I did what I had to do.”
She got a job at Walmart near her home, thinking she could save on gas money and maybe get an employee discount. At first Darcy worked as many hours as she could but soon discovered that it actually made things worse. She needs food stamps (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP), daycare assistance and medical coverage for her boys. “But if I earn $1 over the threshold, the food stamps got reduced and I have to pay more for daycare and risked losing the kids’ medical. Working hard actually hurt me in the long run. The next month my benefits would be reduced – but the overtime isn’t regular so I never know what I’m going to earn.”
Darcy lives a frugal life. “We don’t have cable TV. I do my own hair and nails. Our clothes come from Walmart and the thrift store and garage sales. I don’t smoke. I don’t go out. A big deal for me and my boys is going fishing. I buy lunch meat and bread, make a jug of Kool-Aid and get some chips and apples. We fish all day and then fry up our catch for dinner.” It hurt when a DHS worker criticized her spending habits. “The ‘designer purse’ I was carrying was a knockoff that I bought for $5 from a garage sale.”
Life is hard, especially for the children. Darcy worries about them being outside and getting into trouble when she’s not home. “My son plays basketball at school. I had to buy him Nikes to play in. My nephew wants to join the orchestra at school but I can’t afford an instrument.” Darcy knows that sports, music and such can help a student get into college, get a scholarship. “But where do I get the money to pay for these things? And how do I live if I have to take time off from work to take them there?”
Last month disaster struck. “My kids got the flu. I took time off work to stay home with them. No sooner than they got better, I got sick.” Darcy has no medical insurance. The flu led to pneumonia. She was sick for two weeks. By then her sick leave was used up. The additional time off but it was without pay. “And I have an ER bill for over $3,000.”
Just when she thought things couldn’t get worse, her car died. She didn’t have money for repairs or for a new car. She realized that getting a loan from one of the used car lots around town would result in a bill she couldn’t pay.
Darcy gets rides from coworkers when she can, or calls a cab. She received a warning at work for tardiness. “Cab drivers don’t like to come to my neighborhood. Sometimes I have to wait two hours for a taxi.” Between the lost time from work and the extra money for cabs, she couldn’t pay her electric bill, is late on her rent, and is afraid of getting fired.
“I want to finish school. I’d like to move to a better school district. I want my boys to have a better life than I have. But I don’t see that happening, the way things are going.”
In 2011, 36,000 Oklahomans earned minimum wage of $7.25 per hour while 20,000 earned less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Oklahoma’s proportion of minimum-wage or below workers ranks # 11 nationwide.
Walmart, the third-highest revenue grossing corporation in the world, has been labeled by Good Jobs First as the #1 driver behind the growing use of food stamps in the US, with as many as 80 percent of Walmart workers on food stamps in some states.
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