Cleaning and Class
This year I am doing a massive spring cleaning. I have donated several bags of books, recycled and shredded what seems like an endless amount of paper and have thrown away what can now only be described as junk.
I’ve also been scrubbing: floors, shelves, and even the grout between tiles in the kitchen and bathroom. I take an old toothbrush, pour on some cleanser and clean spots I usually overlook in my normal cleaning routine.
After a day or two of super-cleaning, I noticed my wrists and shoulders getting sore. Not what I’d call pain, but they clearly needed a few days off from cleaning. That was no problem; I had work to do and little extra time to clean for a while anyway.
This got me thinking about the relationship between cleaning and social class. Cleaning is a basic need in order to maintain a sanitary living environment. It also usually varies quite a bit by personal preference; I like things to be neat, but I have family members who have dramatically different standards of what is acceptable.
When we consider how social class plays a role in cleanliness we can see that it is about much more than whether someone is a neat freak or not.
For one, if you are a homeowner with the financial resources, you can afford to remodel rather than repeatedly scrub old cabinets and worn floors that never really come clean. And of course you can pay someone else to do your scrubbing for you. (This reminds me of the movie The Aviator, about billionaire Howard Hughes, who allegedly had his maids soak labels off of cans and perform other extreme cleaning rituals in the service of his germ phobia). You don’t need to be a billionaire to hire cleaning help once and a while, but it does require having a bit of disposable income.
Renters in high-end buildings will also likely be seen as valued customers to their landlords, who will want to make sure they keep high-paying tenants by including the newest finishes in their buildings and replace worn carpet or outdated appliances. By contrast, tenants in lower-rent areas sometimes have to fight to maintain basic services—like heat and electricity—and fight insect and rodent infestation due to poor building maintenance. And the lower one’s income, the greater the likelihood that they work at a job that requires physical labor…maybe they even clean other people’s homes for a living.
As my cleaning binge reminded me, bending to reach dusty corners and the repetitive motion of scrubbing takes its toll on the body. Doing this sort of work for years would seriously increase the odds of a work-related injury or disability.
As journalist Barbara Ehrenreich found while doing research for her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, when a woman was injured working as a maid for a cleaning service, she couldn’t afford to even take the day off, let alone seek medical treatment. With no sick days or health insurance, missing work and the added expense would have been too much for her. I am fortunate in that I don’t need to clean for a living; being a professor means I have health insurance and disability coverage, and my job puts me at far lower risk for workplace injuries than those who have more physically demanding jobs.
As Susan Starr Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle describe in their article “Sick Out of Luck: The Uninsured in America,” such workplace injuries mark the body, making the class lines even more visible through things like limps, missing teeth, hearing or visual impairments. In their estimation, the limited availability of health care for people who work in the most physically demanding jobs creates a de facto caste system, further setting these workers on the other side of the class divide.
One privilege literally hit home as I returned from the office that day: there was a faint whiff of cleanser as I opened the door, reminding me that I could enjoy the results of my labor. Those who clean for a living may very well take pride in their work, but I wonder if they are able to enjoy the outcome as much as I did. I doubt it. After all, they will likely return to clean, scrub, dust, and vacuum the exact same spaces all too soon.