Hate to Clean? Be Thankful

I have a new definition of being fortunate in America: You can afford to complain about cleaning.

It's pretty common to roll your eyes at the number of laundry loads your family generates or the urgent need to wash the floor after the dog has tracked in mud. In fact, being able to wash your clothes and make that kitchen floor shine are rather wonderful things.

Feeding America recently did a study, In Short Supply: American Families Struggle to Secure Everyday Essentials, that showed that one in three low-income families struggled to afford basic personal care items and household goods. Sadly, 32 percent reported reusing diapers to save money.

I should point out that the study was funded in part by Proctor & Gamble. But the findings where diapers are concerned are consistent with a study I collaborated on earlier this year with Yale researchers that had no industry funding and with an earlier study commissioned by Huggies.

The Feeding America study does an excellent job of showing how families are constantly shifting insufficient resources to pay for some necessities, while letting others slide. Nearly three out of four had cut back on food in the past year to afford personal care and cleaning products. Some reported washing only their children's clothes to conserve detergent. How do you think the parents in their dirty clothes are regarded at work? (And remember: about 10 million adults in poverty do work.) One in five families reported skipping or delaying medical appointments to save money.

As of November 1, 47 million Americans - 21 million of them children - had their food stamp allotment cut. Congress failed to extend extra resources to the program that had been dedicated in the 2009 stimulus package, the argument being that the U.S. economy is in recovery. But as The Wall Street Journal points out, that recovery has not extended to low-income families. As Washington develops a new Farm Bill, food stamps could take another hit. This is at a time when 49 million Americans live in homes with food insecurity.

I often talk about how food stamps and WIC (Women's Infants and Children) do not provide diapers. People sometimes think that I'm calling for these programs to include diapers. I'm not. As it is, our anti-hunger programs are not nearly robust enough to keep every American fed.

What I do want is a recognition that basic needs are broader than food and a commitment to meeting all those needs. Indeed, we often hear mothers tell us about going without food themselves so that they can purchase diapers. Food, electricity, bus passes, diapers, toothpaste - they are all the same. They are necessities. Unless we support the neediest families in getting all these necessities, they will be forever juggling: Food instead of laundry; diapers instead of food; heat instead of medicine.

These are unacceptable choices. I believe they spring from a real disconnect between the neediest Americans and those of us who are luckier. It's hard for us to imagine crying with gratitude when someone gives us a package of diapers. But that's a common experience at diaper banks.

This Thanksgiving, when you're feeling grateful for your feast, also think about the napkins, the well-scrubbed faces around your table and the prospect of cleaning the oven when it's all over. All of these things speak about the comfort and safety of your life. They are basics that ever family needs. I'll be truly thankful when no family does without them.