Hygiene poverty isn't as visible as hunger, but it's very real—and affecting the most vulnerable parents and kids. Here's how to help.

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I was 11 or 12, about to start a new school year, and desperately in need of a haircut. I was also extremely poor. The only place I ever got my hair cut as a child was the local beauty school; they charged $2 for a wash and cut. But at that time, even $2 was impossible for my family to afford. We also didn't own a washing machine, and a trip to the laundromat was an expensive—and rare—luxury. Even basics like shampoo and detergent were often beyond our financial reach. So, I started school that year with uncut hair that had been washed with hand soap. I was wearing old, unwashed clothes.

An image of a woman shopping for shampoo.
Credit: Getty Images.

My story is far from unique or a relic of the past; today, one in six kids lives in poverty in the United States, and kids under 18 are the poorest age group in the country. And they're experiencing an even harsher reality than I did growing up. With poverty often comes hunger, job and housing insecurity, and perhaps most insidious of all, hygiene poverty.

What is hygiene poverty?

"Imagine not having toilet paper, shampoo, or soap," Teresa Hamilton, executive director of the nonprofit Giving the Basics, tells Parents. She routinely suggests a simple yet eye-opening exercise—one that parents can conduct with kids at home as part of educating them about poverty and homelessness, and promoting empathy for those in need. "We ask people to try to go for three days without the basics and see how others in our country are living and feeling every day."

Hamilton adds that access to basic cleanliness is crucial to not only physical health, but mental and emotional health—and that goes for kids, too. "Going without hygiene products leaves people living in shame and without hope," she says. Which is precisely why her organization is "dedicated to allowing children to raise their hands in school without fear of being bullied and to helping people gain employment because they are proud of how they smell and look, prepared for a job interview," Hamilton explains.

Unnecessary barriers to hygiene

Increasing access to hygiene products and cleaning supplies for families in poverty can be surprisingly difficult, since those items cannot be purchased using SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps). Some food pantries are making a special effort to include these non-food essentials, but that's still relatively uncommon—and also depends on available donations, which is already a concern for the existing programs. "Our biggest need is manufacturers and distributors to connect with us and donate products," says Hamilton.

Proponents of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and similar initiatives say this is exactly the type of situation those kinds of programs can address, by giving recipients cash that they can spend on whatever they need, as they see fit. Data from an experimental UBI program in Stockton, California, found that many of the participants did exactly that: They spent a substantial chunk of the money they received on self-care essentials and household products, along with other necessities like food and clothing.

Pandemic progress—and lack thereof

Hamilton and representatives of similar organizations say the pandemic has created a dual challenge: They must abide by COVID restrictions and safety protocol that make it challenging to host distribution events, while at the same time experiencing a significant increase in need for their services.

"Compared to the prior year, in 2020 we saw a 60 percent increase in demand for hygiene products," says Liz Duggan, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Amenity Aid, which distributes toiletry necessities—basic items like soap, period products, toothbrushes, and more—to vulnerable populations. "The pandemic made our services even more critical, [and it] has created an enormous financial strain... Our donors are not immune to the economic downturn, and generally there is a sense of fatigue that stops people from giving to relief efforts as the pandemic continues."

It doesn't help that hygiene poverty is a critical but often overlooked—in comparison to, say, widespread childhood hunger—need. "When people think of basic human needs, food, clothing, and shelter come to mind," Duggan says. But that's not the whole picture, Duggan explains, and "essential hygiene products need to be added to the narrative. They are not a luxury ... Hygiene poverty is happening here in America. Toilet paper from public restrooms is being used instead of period products, and people are brushing without toothpaste."

Of course, the impact on the parents and children who are helped by these programs may be difficult to fully appreciate unless, like me, you have been in their shoes.

Duggan agrees. "One time, I walked into a homeless shelter with a box of products and a resident smiled and told me it felt like Christmas morning," she recalls. "Often, I am told how desperately they need the products, like a weight has been lifted. Clients sometimes arrive at homeless shelters with minimal possessions; when they are given their own hygiene supplies, it gives them a sense of pride."

How can you (and your kids) help?

Donate your time, money, even your social media support to organizations fighting hygiene poverty for families nationwide.

WeCAN serves a limited geographical area in Minnesota yet still has a huge impact. In 2020, they provided 8,390 cleaning products and personal toiletry items to 1,306 individuals in over 500 households. WeCAN spokesperson Lorrie Ham tells Parents that the org's programs "are designed to help stretch the budget of struggling families. By providing basic needs at no cost, families can use [their own limited] funds to stabilize their housing situation."

LaundryCares is on pause during the pandemic, but normally hosts events throughout the year and across the country where local residents can do their laundry at no charge. Many of these events are Free Laundry & Literacy Days that combine no-cost access to laundry services and activities to promote reading and access to books. At one past event in Las Vegas, the organization helped almost 90 families wash nearly 12,000 pounds of laundry, despite temperatures that soared above 100 degrees.

SocialWorks is a Chicago-based organization started by Chance the Rapper that distributes a variety of essentials, including PPE supplies, winter coats, and feminine hygiene products.

Rock Your Month is an online subscription box service for feminine hygiene products with a mission to ensure all women have access to feminine care. Rock Your Month donates proceeds from all subscription memberships to provide feminine care to women in underserved communities.

Sweet Dream Makers provides beds, bedding, and essential furniture at no cost to children and families sleeping on the floor, sharing beds, or sleeping in unsafe, unsanitary conditions. Each child gets to choose their own bedding to go with their new bed.