Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
Head east on I-40. Go past Midwest City and Tinker, out to where the hills roll down to creeks lined with trees and the land is green. Get off at the Prague exit and follow the signs to Boley. Stop by the Dairy Queen. Five miles out of town, turn right down a long gravel road and park near the barn. Give your dad a hug and unload the groceries you brought.
Your dad smiles. You’ve been his lifeline for years now. Social Security barely covers utilities, medicine and doctor visits. Your dad made a good living as an auto mechanic but he has no pension and his savings are about gone, eaten up by your mom’s medical expenses before she passed. SNAP benefits help but the end of the month, when food stamps are gone, is always lean.
“I do love those DQ burgers and shakes!” your dad says. Treats are few and far between for him. He doesn’t like to drive anymore and there aren’t many places to go around here – and no money to spend even if he could get there. You ask your dad what he ate yesterday. “I had some cereal, then one of those frozen dinners you brought last time.”
“Did you bring a few things that I can take to Mrs. Johnson? She’s in a bad way,” your dad asks. You nod. There is more food in the car. Your church’s food pantry helps. You and your dad drive a half mile to Mrs. Johnson’s house. Your families have always been close. The Johnsons’ only living child is in Missouri. She is ill and can’t take care of her mother. Mrs. Johnson is pretty much on her own.
You enter the dimly-lit house and can’t help noticing the dust. You open the cupboard to put the groceries away and grimace at the empty shelves. “What did you eat yesterday, Ms. Johnson?” “Oatmeal,” she replies.
You talk about the way things are changing. Food prices are up – way up. The old folks worry about sugar and salt intake but the cheapest things to buy are the least healthy. There’s only the one market, miles away. Its prices are high and its selection is scanty. Resources that help the elderly poor in cities just don’t exist out here. People rely on family, if they have any, on neighbors, on their churches. They make do. They don’t complain. You make a note to call Mrs. Johnson’s daughter.
You and your dad head to evening services. You talk with the pastor about the people in the church who are having a hard time. He tells you most of his church members struggle to keep food on the table, especially the elders. The US Census Bureau says that poverty in Oklahoma is at a 10-year high and Okfuskee County has the highest poverty rate in the state. More than 28 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level. Sixty percent of the residents of Okfuskee County are eligible for SNAP and similar benefits.
A lot of the people you grew up with have left, moving to where the jobs are and there’s more to do than fish and play dominoes on the porch. Those that remain are mostly poor, especially if they don’t have good jobs in the city – but the city is more than an hour’s drive away. Okfuskee County’s unemployment rate is 5.4 percent, higher than the state average of 4.2 percent but still better than places too far from a city for residents to drive to better jobs. Few families are as fortunate as yours; all three of you graduated college and have good jobs and are able to help your dad. It’s not easy being squeezed between your own kids and your elders but you do it.
Back at your dad’s you finish a few chores around the house and ask him again if he will come stay with you. He answers – again – that he wants to stay in his home. “God bless you, son,” he says. You make a list of things he needs and tell him you’ll see him soon. You hope he’ll be okay until then.