09/25/2012 04:46 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Not to Mention the Toilet Paper

I am grateful to Larkin Warren who in "I Was a Welfare Mother," in the New York Times Opinion page yesterday, writes:

My initial allotment (which edged up slightly over the next three years) was a little more than $250 a month. Rent was around $150. We qualified for $75 in food stamps, which couldn't be used for toilet paper, bathroom cleanser, Band-Aids, tampons, soap, shampoo, aspirin, toothpaste or, of course, the phone bill, or gas, insurance or snow tires for the car.

The federal poverty guidelines and the programs that are meant to support families living in poverty do not take into account, in any real way, that families need diapers, toilet paper, soap, shampoo, cleaning supplies, aspirin and so much more. That is why many say the federal poverty guidelines are a "statistical yardstick rather than a complete description of what people and families need to live."

There is a way to look at how much it really costs to live in any given place in the U.S. It is called the self-sufficiency standard and the focus on that is being led by the Center for Women's Welfare.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard defines the amount of income necessary to meet basic needs (including taxes) without public subsidies (e.g., public housing, food stamps, Medicaid or child care) and without private/informal assistance (e.g., free babysitting by a relative or friend, food provided by churches or local food banks, or shared housing).

The reality is that a family receiving TANF, SNAP, WIC or other subsidies often cannot meet their basic needs. They go without things including clean clothes, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, over the counter medications and a myriad of other every day items.

Why does this matter? Because in order to learn kids need to be clean, healthy and well fed and in order to work -- to get hired -- the same is true for adults.

We should mention the toilet paper -- and all the other real and concrete things people need when we talk about poverty.