Come November 1, San Francisco will be the first city in the country to operate a program that distributes diapers to low-income families who struggle to afford them.
The city will give diapers to families who already receive welfare benefits through the state CalWORKS program. The city has awarded a grant to Help a Mother Out, which partners with social service providers across California to distribute diapers to families in need, to establish and operate the diaper bank. While it’s currently in a pilot stage, serving 257 families, it will go into full operation at the beginning of November and eventually reach about 1,300 families with children under three years old at a cost of $479,000 a year.
According to an earlier report commissioned by the San Francisco Human Services Agency, a single parent working a full-time minimum wage job will spend 8 percent of her annual income, or about $1,872, on diapers a year. It’s a challenge that faces many families: nationally, an adequate supply of diapers costs $936 per child a year, which will eat up more than 6 percent of income for a single parent making minimum wage.
Yet diapers are not an allowable expense under the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program or under food stamps. The California bill notes that diapers are classified the same as cigarettes, alcohol, and pet food as invalid purchases under federal law. While families can use the cash benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or welfare, to buy diapers, the purchasing power of those benefits continues to erode.
As a result, nearly 30 percent of women say they’ve experienced a time when they couldn’t afford to buy diapers for their children. And such a predicament leads them to face some bad tradeoffs. Ten percent of those who couldn’t afford them borrowed money from family or friends, 13 percent got diapers from an agency or a church, and 8 percent simply had to stretch their diapers when their supply ran short. But the inability to change a wet diaper can lead to urinary tract infections and diaper dermatitis. Diaper shortages can even interfere with work, as most child care centers require parents to give them an adequate supply of diapers.
Reusable diapers are also not often an option: most day care centers won’t accept them, nor will laundromats allow parents to wash them.
The challenge has caught state-wide attention. Last year, California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D) introduced a bill that would create an assistance program for families on welfare to help pay for diapers, the first of its kind in the country. But while it passed the Assembly, no Republicans voted to support it, and it has yet to be voted on in the Senate.