Public assistance programs, to quote one Oklahoma author and activist, are really about “enlightened self-interest,” a safety measure to prevent civilization from going down with a wrecked ship.
“This isn’t at all about charity to others,” said Camille Landry of her book Neglected Oklahoma: Voices from the Margins published by the nonprofit Oklahoma Policy Institute. “If you’re in a lifeboat and that sucker starts to leak, you’re all gonna sink. It doesn’t matter if the hole is under your seat or somebody else’s.”
Neglected Oklahoma collects 19 essays Landry wrote for Policy Institute’s blog, chronicling the true stories of people struggling to keep their heads above water despite the insufficient “safety cushion” provided by the state’s programs.
“We come up with some of the most god-awful public policy known to humankind in terms of the way that we treat the most vulnerable among us,” Landry said. “Oklahoma is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to all indicators of a good life, starting with life expectancy and educational attainment, access to health care, infant mortality, heart attacks and strokes and diabetes, incarceration — you name it; if there’s something wrong about it, Oklahoma’s doing it.”
At the request of Policy Institute Executive Director David Blatt, Landry began writing the series in 2013 to show readers “what it was like to be flat broke” in Oklahoma.
“Our real focus in doing this is to try to put a human face on public policy,” Landry said, “to be able to explain to voters, to people who work for agencies that interact with folks who need services and to the legislators and administrators who make law and policy that there is a real human cost to the decisions that are made.”
The subject of Landry’s first essay “Stayin’ Alive” is a friend of Landry who was having difficulty getting insurance to cover her cancer treatments.
“I had no idea until I sat down and interviewed her how much trouble she had actually had,” Landry said. “It got a really good response from readership because I wasn’t the only one that did not realize just how very difficult and life-threatening, literally life-threateningly, difficult it is to obtain coverage, even for people who you wouldn’t look at and think were in that category.”
After deciding to make the story into an ongoing series, Landry said she worried she would have trouble finding subjects, a concern she soon realized was misguided.
“I thought at first, ‘Oh, Lord! How am I going to find all these people to talk to? Where am I gonna get the subject matter? Am I gonna have to put up a billboard alongside the highway or something?’” she said. “I wish. Frankly, a good number of the people that I focused on in the series are people that I actually know … people who had gone from being fairly comfortable middle-class families to being desperate in the blink of an eyelid, people who are two paychecks away from being on the street.”
The subjects of these essays — single mothers working multiple jobs but struggling to feed their children and pay the bills, a homeless veteran addicted to methamphetamine, foster children whose parents are lost to opioids and prison sentences — are often ignored when legislators discuss the consequences of budget cuts, Landry said, although these kinds of stories are more common than people like to think.
“We have this notion that anybody who really is willing to work hard enough and has a basic amount of smarts can make it if only they’re willing to sacrifice, but how do you do that?” Landry said. “A lot of people know that they’re struggling, but they think it’s just them and that they must be doing something wrong, but that’s actually not the case.”
Writing a story about hunger, for example, Landry discovered she knew several people who weren’t getting enough to eat, even after years of hard work and fiscal responsibility.
“Within the space of a couple of days, I ran into several people that I knew had spent their lives working, were employed or retired from gainful employment and should not have had to struggle with something as basic as food but were, in fact, not getting an adequate number of calories or were filling up on potatoes to the detriment of their health,” Landry said. “People who had worked every day of their lives and raised their families and saved money and had pensions, many of which dried up in the 2008 crash. These were not the people that most people would think of as folks in need of a food pantry.”
While Landry hopes her book gives policymakers a better idea of the human suffering resulting from inadequate public assistance programs, she said everyone has a role to play in the government.
“You can call your legislator and say, ‘Hey, I care. I know that this has real-life consequences for real people, and I’d like you to reconsider and here are some alternatives,’” she said. “There is certainly a role for neighborliness, for awareness that the grandma next door to you runs out of food by the 20th of the month and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to bring her a plate every once in a while … but the fact of the matter is private charity cannot replace good public policy. There’s no way that any charity, no matter how well-funded, can provide the things that government provides … There’s no way that individual action can replace the collective responsibility. Do we want to have to rely on our neighbor and his garden hose if our house catches fire?”
Neglected Oklahoma can be purchased for $15 online at okpolicy.org.
Print Headline: Neglected subjects; Camille Landry and Oklahoma Policy Institute release a book of essays that shed light on the real struggles of Oklahomans