Food stamps don’t cover diapers, nor does the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program. And welfare benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) usually aren’t enough to buy them.
So to help poor families afford this basic necessity, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison (MN) and Rosa DeLauro (CT) have introduced the first federal bill looking to address the gaps in the current benefit system. Their Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act would allow states to create pilot programs providing diapers or a subsidy to buy diapers to low-income families.
“Families should not have to decide between diapers, food, or rent,” Rep. Ellison said in a press release announcing the bill.
There is currently just one place trying the idea out: San Francisco, where a bill recently made it the first city to operate a program distributing diapers to low-income families on welfare. A California assemblywoman has also introduced a bill to create a statewide assistance program, but it has yet to get a vote in the senate. In the meantime, state law classifies diapers in the same category as cigarettes, alcohol, and pet food as invalid purchases.
Diapers constitute an enormous expense for low-income families anywhere in the U.S. An adequate supply — up to 240 of them a month for one infant — can cost nearly $1,000 a year. Nearly 30 percent of women have experienced a time when they couldn’t afford diapers for their children. That burden falls far heavier on the poor than on those who are better off. The people in the lowest quintile of income, making an average of just over $11,000 a year, spends nearly 14 percent of its income on diapers. The next quintile, those who make about $29,000 a year, still spend 5 percent of its income on them. Yet the richest only has to expend 1 percent of its income.
Many mothers who can’t afford enough diapers have to resort to extreme, sometimes unhealthy, measures. Ten percent of women who have faced a time when they couldn’t afford diapers had to borrow money from family or friends, while another 13 percent got them from an agency or church. Worse, 8 percent had to stretch their supply, leaving their children in soiled diapers, which can lead to infections and rashes. Parents also often can’t leave their children at daycare centers without also bringing enough diapers, making it difficult for them to go work. Most centers won’t accept reusable diapers, nor can they be washed in a laundromat.
Diaper banks, organizations that collect diapers to disperse to needy families, have sprung up around the country. Yet as the announcement from Ellison and DeLauro points out, “these organizations are unable to meet the demand for diapers and supplies.”
“It is time diapers are treated as a necessity for the health of every child,” the statement declares.