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“Diaper Insecurity” Is a Big Problem in the U.S. Why Isn’t There a Solution?

Thirty-six percent of American families struggle to afford diapers. Little has been done to help them.

Millions of American families struggle to afford a basic and essential need for their babies: diapers. According to numbers from the National Diaper Bank Network and Huggies, 36 percent of American families experience diaper insecurity. This leads many to bleach and reuse disposable diapers, keep diapers on their babies longer, or sometimes use non-diaper materials for their infants. Of the families who experience diaper insecurity, 60 percent miss work or school because they didn’t have enough diapers for child care or to get through the day. Diaper banks, which provide diapers to families for free, have sprung up across the country. But charity alone, like the National Diaper Bank Network, can’t fix a crisis that has existed for decades. The diaper bank crisis exists because government has failed to help out families in need.

The need for diaper banks in the face of diaper insecurity is a reality that has only been exacerbated by the deepening recession and job loss due to COVID-19. Given that diapers are by no means a frivolous expense, and are necessary for public health, it’s a wonder why the government hasn’t yet stepped in, and let diaper banks alone take on the cause of helping families access necessities. That diaper banks need to exist at all is an indictment of a system that does not value families, and their needs. It would make sense, for example, for the federal government to provide diapers to new moms through government aid programs — but that hasn’t been the case for decades, thanks to welfare reform that has gutted social supports for working parents across the country.

Still, there are several government programs that do help new moms and parents. One of the most popular programs, the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), helps poor and working class moms by providing them with formula, food support, breastfeeding support, and parenting workshops, but not diapers. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, helps people buy groceries, but not diapers. Both of these programs fail to help supplement the cost of diapers, which aren’t considered necessities, but instead,  “hygiene items.” You try telling a new mom that a diaper isn’t a necessity and see how she reacts to that.

There’s also the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a cash assistance program that gives parents more leeway over how they can spend their money, but is inaccessible for most. Today, TANF serves only 23 percent of families living below the federal poverty line. Even that obscures how ineffective the program is: in 13 states, fewer than 10 out of every 100 poor families receive cash assistance. That cash assistance could, conceivably, be used for diapers, for toothpaste, for baby wipes. But usually — because so little money comes to families from it, and the funds that they receive are insufficient — most of that money goes towards bills and rent. And families can’t access TANF for more than five years, meaning that after 60 months, there’s no more help. And if they aren’t near one of the 300 national diaper banks across the country, or they don’t have access to a car, or transportation, to go to one, that can make a parent functionally S.O.L.

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For a parent making minimum wage, anywhere from six to 14 percent of their income will go towards diapers — and most families who struggle with diaper security fall short by 20 diapers a month. For parents of infants — who get changed every two to three hours, urinating anywhere between every one to three hours and pooping two to five times a day — this could amount to nearly a single day of not being able to have diapers for their children. This means missed work, missed school, and sometimes, babies experiencing health problems related to spending too much time in a dirty diaper.

TANF was created in 1996, when the then-successful Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) federal assistance program was gutted by Democrat Bill Clinton and his Republican-led congress. Before AFDC was gutted, and replaced with a program that has work requirements, time limits, and restrictions on what parents can use the money for, AFDC helped families get necessities like diapers, baby wipes, toilet paper, and toothpaste. Experts agree that TANF is far less effective than AFDC ever was, likely by design. 

Now, diapers are sometimes provided to children who are enrolled in such child care center-based programs as Early Head Start or Head Start. But that only covers diaper use during the day. Since day cares across the board have been closed for months since mid-March, parents who might have depended on five or six subsidized diaper changes per day are out of luck.

Like many essential needs for families, diapers are more expensive for low-income families than they are for those more well-off. The combination of irregular need and being cash poor leads poor parents to being unable to buy in bulk, so instead of being able to pay $20 for 100 diapers, which might last a few weeks, poor parents are forced to pay more for less, or run to a corner store to buy a handful of diapers because that’s all the cash they have on hand. Wealthy families get to go to Costco or Sam’s Club. Poor families can not. 

Private and nonprofit organizations have stepped in to help parents in need. In 2011, a handful of regional diaper banks got together and dreamed big to create a national network of providing the essential need to families. Today, there are more than 300 diaper banks in the United States in 46 states across the country. The NBDN runs community diaper programs to help families directly access diapers, lobbies Washington for diaper legislation, and partners with other causes regarding basic hygiene — like the critical need of access to period products. Charity and lobbying alone will never be enough to fill the need — and the conditions that created that need — for many families, although they help tremendously. And the steps needed to make diapers more affordable don’t even need to be that drastic. According to The Nation, eliminating the seven-percent sales tax on diapers would allow families to be able to afford 14 more diapers a month — nearly closing the $20-per-month shortfall that most families who are diaper insecure experience. 

Some lawmakers have also begun to understand the sheer necessity of providing meaningful cash assistance for diapers. In California, which has 22 diaper banks across the state, Representative Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher passed a bill in 2018 that gives moms of kids under the age of three who are enrolled in their state welfare program an extra $30 a week to buy diapers. Although the law hasn’t passed, Illinois lawmakers considered providing $80 per month to families in the same position. But the ability to afford diapers, or access meaningful welfare or cash assistance, shouldn’t be based on what state you live in. And lawmakers, many of whom claim to care about babies, be pro-life, and are “pro-family” would do well to include diaper assistance as part of their platforms or state laws. 

Whether the sales tax on diapers were simply eliminated or a separate welfare program was created state by state to help those 36 percent of parents nationwide who can’t afford to provide their baby a diaper, something’s got to give. Diapers are a need. They’re a quality of life issue. Parents shouldn’t have to struggle to pay for them, and shouldn’t have to pay a premium because they can’t afford to buy in bulk. Charitable souls shouldn’t have to donate to diaper banks to help those parents, although it’s a wonderful thing that they do. Parents shouldn’t have to choose between diapers and their own ability to eat; or going to work that day because they can’t afford to pay for diapers or they’ve run out ahead of their next paycheck or cash assistance benefit. But many parents still do. And it wouldn’t be that hard to change that.