The First-Ever Bill To Help Low-Income Moms Afford Diapers

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Nearly a third of women report that, at some point, they couldn’t afford to buy diapers for their children. But the most common safety net programs for low-income mothers don’t cover the expense.

Tor the low-income mothers of California, this problem could soon be alleviated. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D) as penned AB 1516, the first bill in the country that would create an assistance program for families who receive welfare benefits to pay for diapers. It would give families with children under two who qualify for CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program, $80 a month for the necessity. An estimated 120,000 children would get the assistance. It passed the Assembly 55 to 23 in May, and it’s now in committee in the Senate.

The cost of such a program is estimated to come to $119 million a year, although supporters counter that it would end up being lower because it would help low-income parents work more. Given that child care centers usually require parents to bring disposable diapers when they drop off their kids, some who can’t afford them end up having to stay at home with their infants and toddlers instead.

No Assembly Republicans voted in favor of the bill, however. Besides the price tag, some objected that there is potential for fraud without a mechanism to ensure that the money actually goes to diapers.

For her part, Gonzalez says the bill is mostly meant to raise awareness about the challenge that poor mothers face. If it doesn’t pass this year, she says she’ll rewrite it and reintroduce it next year.

Diapers represent a huge cost for low-income families. On average, a family has to spend $18 a week per child, or $936 a year, which represents 6 percent of a single mother’s gross pay who works a full-time minimum wage job. Cloth diapers, which can be reused, often don’t help because most day care centers won’t accept them and laundromats won’t let parents wash them. Food stamps and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits can’t be used for diapers, which get grouped with pet food, cigarettes, and alcohol. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare, allows recipients to spend their benefits on diapers, but those benefits are incredibly meager and their value has been falling. Plus very few families even get them. There are less than 100 diaper banks in the country, centers that give poor mothers what they need.

Mothers who are faced with the inability to buy diapers have few good options. Eight percent stretch diapers when supply runs short. That can be bad for children’s health, as a wet diaper can led to infections and diaper dermatitis, requiring more doctor and emergency room visits, another cost. Ten percent borrow diapers or money to buy them from family and friends and another 10 percent got them from an agency.

The backlash to Gonzalez’s bill hasn’t just come from fiscal minded Republicans, but people who say poor women shouldn’t have children they can’t afford to care for. But it’s worth remembering that not only do families on public assistance have the same number of children, on average, as families who don’t rely on assistance, but we’re failing to give low-income women adequate assistance in affording contraception. There are also no limits on how many children more well off families can have, regardless of their finances.