California could soon become the first state in the country to offer poor families some help with an expensive necessity: diapers.
Diapers aren’t covered by food stamps — in California, they’re classified along with cigarettes and alcohol as invalid purchases — nor by the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program for low-income mothers. Welfare assistance can be used to purchase anything a family needs, but only 23 percent of poor families with children in the country get benefits, and the value of welfare benefits has steadily declined over the past two decades.
California lawmakers passed a bill this week that would give families on welfare with children under the age of two a monthly $50 voucher for diapers. It now waits for Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) signature or veto. When the bill was first introduced in 2014, it was estimated that 120,000 children would get the assistance.
Diapers are a huge expense. One infant can require up to 240 of them each month, which can cost $18 a week or nearly $1,000 a year. That’s an enormous share of a family’s budget for those below the poverty line — people in the lowest quintile spend nearly 14 percent of their income on diapers. Cloth diapers are not a viable alternative for many families, as laundromats won’t let people wash them and daycare centers usually require disposable ones.
That leaves families in a difficult bind. Nearly 30 percent of all women have experienced a time when they couldn’t afford diapers for their children. That leads a sizable share to stretch diapers when supply is running low, risking urinary infections and diaper dermatitis. Others have had to turn to family, friends, and charities to afford them.
One California city has already done something to help needy families. At the end of last year, San Francisco began distributing diapers directly to about 1,300 families on welfare.
California’s not the only place where the issue has caught attention. In November last year, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison (MN) and Rosa DeLauro (CT) introduced a federal bill that would allows states to create pilot programs to either give low-income families a subsidy to buy diapers or distribute them directly. The White House has since taken notice, releasing a report on the issue in March and convening a coalition of online retailers, diaper manufacturers, and nonprofits to give poor families more access.