Dirty clothes lead to absenteeism (NOT)

Would it make a difference in terms of absenteeism if students had ready access to clean clothes at school? That’s the question Whirlpool Corp is trying to answer by installing washing machines and dryers in 17 schools near St Louis this year.

“People don’t talk about not having clean clothes because it makes you want to cry or go home or run away or something,” a student says in a video the company is using to promote the Care Counts school laundry program.

“Every single day of school matters. When students miss school, they are missing an opportunity to learn,” said Martha Lacy, principal, David Weir K-8 Academy. “Absenteeism strongly impacts a student’s academic performance. In fact, students with excessive absence rates are more likely to fall behind, graduate late and even drop out.”

Students in the pilot program improved in other ways too. Teachers said:

  • 95% of participants showed increased motivation in class
  • 95% of participants were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities
  • 95% of participants interacted with peers and enjoyed school more
  • 89% of participants got good grades

“When we learned that a child’s education could be at risk because they do not have access to clean clothes, we were determined to help,” said Chelsey Lindstrom of Whirlpool brand. “It’s incredible to see how the simple act of laundry can have such a profound impact on students’ lives and we are excited to bring this resource to even more schools across the country.”

Editorial

In the first year of the program, it reportedly provided approximately 2,000 loads of clean clothes to students across two school districts. “After examining the correlation between student attendance and loads of laundry washed and dried, over 90% of tracked students in the program improved their attendance, averaging 6.1 more days in school than the previous year.”

Furthermore, “the program impacted the most at-risk participants even more, with an average of nearly two more weeks in school than the previous year.”

Getting kids to spend 6.1 more days in school every year, on average, is nothing to sneeze at. The problem here is that the studies conducted measure correlation and not causation. This was not a random sample of students in either the experimental group or the non-existent control group.

So in news reports—here it is on ABC-2 News WMAR-TV in Baltimore—people get excited. But comparing how many days a kid goes to school in 2012, say, to how many days that kid goes to school in 2013 is misleading. So many variables affect kids’ lives at school and in their communities that any change in any dependent variable can’t possibly be attributed to any one of the independent variables with any confidence, and the public is misled.

It’s more likely that clean clothes are one of many “wraparound services” that will create a school climate more conducive to learning and student participation. If I’m wearing dirty clothes, I certainly don’t want people to notice me and see my dirty clothes, so I wouldn’t be asking questions or actively engaging teachers or other students in class.

Other services would be medical, dental, and vision care, psychological or counseling services, and so on. While these things don’t directly cause better academic performance, they are certainly correlated with it, at least as a whole. We just need to be careful we don’t make the leap from correlation to causation with any one of those services, as if kids went to school in a vacuum, because they don’t.

Also, it’s a shame we can’t appreciate the value of clean clothes on their own merits. We have to claim some link to increased motivation, extracurricular activities, enjoyment of school, and good grades. Poppycock, I tell you! The reported correlation is completely spurious.

“More than half of teachers surveyed believe … students [who struggle to keep their clothes clean] are more likely to struggle with absenteeism, a critical issue impacting an estimated five to ten million students each year,” the company writes.

The implied link between dirty clothes and absenteeism is like the implied link between ice cream sales and drowning deaths. The two completely separate variables are linked only because both increase during the summer months and decline during the winter months.

No link exists between dirty clothes and absenteeism, except maybe that kids who tend to wear dirty clothes also tend to be the same kids who become chronically absent from school. But what washing machine manufacturers should be touting is the benefits we derive from using their products. I list below some of the benefits of making sure you wear clean clothes:

The National Health Service (in the UK) states that everyone has bacteria inside and outside the body. Clothes capture the bacteria, making them risky to wear again without washing. Dirty underwear has more traces of germs from body fluids and traces of defecation, which makes infection more likely if worn again without washing. The only way to prevent the spread of germs found on clothes from normal wear is to wash them, and it is important to wash hands after contact with dirty laundry.

The National Health Service describes high-risk dirty clothing as items containing vomit, bodily fluids from injury, sweat or contaminated foods or clothes that were in contact with animals. These clothes must be washed at 140 degrees Fahrenheit with a bleach-based product after removing any soil from the items. Washing these clothes separately from unsoiled items prevents contaminating other articles.

Hygiene For Health states that in order to clean clothing completely, clothes must be dried immediately upon washing. Mold can occur on clothing left wet for a prolonged period of time, which can cause odor and skin infections.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.