As I got ready to check out from a quick, basic stop at the grocery store, it struck me how many items in my cart I wouldn’t be able to purchase if I only had food stamps to pay with, like so many of our neediest neighbors:
…and various other sundries that help me run our household. But what really struck me is how many cleanliness-related items I wouldn’t have in my cart:
Yes, I would still have food in my cart and I would be able to feed my kids that night, thank goodness. But it’s important to remember that just because a family can shop at a grocery store with the help of food stamps doesn’t mean they can get everything they need.
As a Diaper Bank, we focus on diapers as a basic hygiene need and one that is not paid for or provided by any federal assistance program, not WIC, Food Stamps or Medicare. But there’s no ignoring the fact that NO hygiene needs are covered by these assistance programs, and it’s a larger conversation that needs to be had.
We expect kids to show up clean and healthy for school and perform as well as other kids, regardless of what they’re dealing with at home. We tell parents to go make a good impression in that interview and get that job. But when people don’t have access to basic hygiene items at home to keep them clean and healthy, they can’t compete on an even playing field. They don’t feel good, they don’t look good, they may not even smell good and it DOES affect them – their self-worth is diminished, they are more self-conscious, they feel shame and embarrassment. It will affect their performance at school and at work – if they make it to/through that interview. Do we think a kid that has to use fast-food napkins at home for toilet paper DOESN’T know he’s different?
We know SNAP (food stamps) is a program under the Department of Agriculture. We get that the likelihood of food stamps ever being stretched to cover non-food items is zip to nil under the USDA. But with technology today, how is it not possible to make an additional subsidy (through the Department of Health and Human Services?) available to families using food stamps to purchase basic hygiene supplies? Barcode technology should make it possible to limit what can be bought to hygiene basics. Hyperbolic howls about “entitlements!” are sure to rise, but a realistic conversation has to be had about what people NEED to get by in America – to get that job, to feel confident at school, to succeed and be independent – besides just food, clothing and housing.
As long as the gaping hole in the safety net exists that doesn’t allow struggling families to have access to basic hygiene items – soap, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, and yes, DIAPERS – things needed to compete, to be independent, to “fit in” and “be normal” by today’s social mores, those families will remain at a major disadvantage in society, and left further behind.
We need to do more. It’s easier said than done, I know, but we need to start acknowledging that a very basic need of people is to be CLEAN – to retain their dignity and self-confidence and to know they’re keeping their kids clean and healthy, just as much as they need food on the table, if they’re expected to perform equally and independently in this country.