Guest Essay: Should the poor receive benefits for personal and home hygiene? | Voices


The need for personal and household hygiene was brought to a critical focus last year with the arrival of the COVID-19 crisis. But can all residents afford to follow the guidelines for personal and home cleanliness?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines for cleaning homes specifies vacuuming, using soap and water or equivalent commercial products, and disinfecting with an EPA-approved product to deter the COVID-19 virus. Laundry is to be washed in the highest possible temperature suitable for the item. Personal hygiene includes frequent bathing or showering, hair washing, and dental care.

Statistica states that money spent for spray disinfectants rose by 400%, multipurpose cleaners by 148%, and paper toweling by 40% by March 2020 as consumers met the call to prevent the spread of the virus.

Most of the clients seen in my practice as a community social worker cannot afford items recommended for personal and household hygiene. The poor who receive Supplemental Nutrition Program benefits (SNAP) may have as little as $5 to $20 per month to cover these costs. How are the poorest of Americans to cope with the expense for household cleanliness and personal hygiene items?

The U.S. government began SNAP, formerly Food Stamps, in 1974 on a national scale to help families meet the minimum standard of nutrition. The government has done nothing to help these same families meet the increased costs for items that promote personal and home hygiene.

People who are out of work and seeking employment must make their best impression. Being clean and well-groomed provides more than a pleasant appearance. Good hygiene shows that someone cares about themself and is an indication of the care they will put forth in their work. But how does a family of four, living on $26,500 per year (Medicaid, 2021), with $1,988 per month being spent on average for housing/shelter, afford personal care and cleaning products? With only $214 left for discretionary spending each month, the family must pay for all other living expenses, such as transportation, clothing, insurance, and incidentals. When the annual cost of laundry detergent ranges from $40 to $132, these families cannot afford the items that promote health and dignity.

There is a way to ease the burden of hygiene insufficiency. First, society must understand that being clean and having a clean home is as much a necessity as having food to eat. People need to feel and look presentable to be accepted by society and benefit from improved self-esteem which allows them to perform better at work and in school. For people who are income eligible, a national program can be offered to provide the basics for good hygiene just as SNAP provides the basics for nutrition. Our government can also fund community sites to provide hygiene essentials.

More communities must establish outreach to their neighbors in need for hygiene items, the way that the Care Cupboard at Dansville Foursquare Church has done. DFC asks for donated hygiene items from community members to stock their shelves. A list of needed items is available by calling (585) 447-2266. Staff then takes requests from people in need and fills the requests as products allow. The better response from the community, the better the job can be done to help people in need with items such as toothbrushes, toilet issue, soaps, disinfectants, cleaners, feminine products, incontinence briefs/pads, and diapers.

How critical is your personal support for community hygiene? The answer lies in which of these products you would choose to live without.

Supporting a hygiene response can be easy and affordable. One dollar or less can provide items such as a 40-load bottle of Ajax laundry detergent, toothpaste, toothbrushes, dryer sheets, a roll of toweling, a 4-pack roll of toilet tissue, or dish washing liquid from area discount retailers. Reward points for purchasing, coupons, or BOGOs are ways to bring the cost of items down to bargain prices or even free for those who wish to donate.

Consider contacting your state and federal representatives to create and support legislation to fund a serious response to hygiene insufficiency. Their names and addresses can be found through your Facebook app – go to townhall, menu, enter your zip code, and follow the prompts or use an online search engine.

Your email or letter could be the one that moves legislators to create new policy and to vote yes to providing underserved families the basic items to meet hygiene needs.

Julie Flanagan, BSW, is a social work practitioner at Dansville Foursquare Church and Community.

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