What About Diapers?

Friend and fierce homeless family advocate Diane Nilan responded to my recent post on child nutrition programs with a question. Did the low-income mothers it focused on say anything about diapers?

I’d meant to write about diaper costs several years ago, when a widely-reported study of low-income mothers found that about 30% didn’t always have enough diapers to put a fresh one on as often as needed.

Just never got to the issue. But I have now.

All new mothers face a choice, at least in theory. Should they use cloth diapers or the disposable kind? Most poor and near-poor women don’t actually have this choice, however.

A service to keep them supplied with clean cloth diapers is out of the question, of course. They’re unlikely to live in a building with washers and dryers in the basement — let alone in their own apartment.

But taking dirty diapers to a laundromat is often out of the question too. Even if the owner allows them in the washers, as many don’t, the mother has to get them there.

A story that went viral tells of a mother who was ordered off a bus because her baby’s newly-soiled diaper smelled. What if she had a whole sackful that needed washing?

Logistics issues aside, most childcare centers require parents to supply disposable diapers for their infants and toddlers, the National Diaper Bank Network reports.

Seems to me likely that many home-based childcare providers do as well, since they’d otherwise have to send dirty diapers to a laundry or store them in some sanitary way for each parent to retrieve.

Parents who work need child care for their kids, including those not yet toilet trained. Even if the provider accepted cloth diapers, they could be hard-pressed for the time to wash, dry and fold them.

Disposable diapers also seem a necessity for parents — mostly mothers — enrolled in a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, since they generally must spend an average of 20-30 hours a week on whatever work activities they’ve been assigned.

TANF parents usually get childcare subsidies. But there’s no subsidy for the diapers. And SNAP (food stamp) and WIC benefits can be used only for foods and beverages.

So a bit of back-of-the-envelope math….

A mother with an infant and a two-year-old can get, at most, about $438 a month in cash assistance from the District of Columbia’s TANF program.

She’ll need roughly 14 disposable diapers a day — or about 426 a month. This is a conservative estimate, based on what I’ve found in various online forums.

The cheapest option is buying the diapers in bulk at a big box store. But here again, we may have logistics problems. A cash flow problem too, since the mother is highly unlikely to have the wherewithal for economies of scale.

So more likely, she’ll have to pick up a box or two at a time from a nearby corner store — or if she’s lucky, a full-service grocery store or one of the expanded chain drugstores.

The cheapest disposable diapers at the grocery store nearest me cost $13.74 a box. More diapers per box for the infant than the toddler, as seems generally the case. The nearby drugstore charges more.

So we’ll assume the mothers buys from the grocery store — and has a car at her disposal or a friend to drive her because she won’t be able to carry the bargain-sized boxes home or to the nearest bus stop.

Her total diaper bill then is roughly $65 a month — nearly 15% of her TANF benefit, which must also cover everything, except the family’s food, if she can stretch her SNAP and WIC benefits enough to last the whole month.

Unimaginable to me how her remaining $373 could pay for even the needs that pop immediately to mind, e.g., clothes, especially for the rapidly-growing kids, laundry, soap and other personal care items, transportation and at least some portion of the rent, plus utilities and cleaning supplies, assuming the family’s not homeless. A big assumption.

Four years ago, bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would have allowed states to use funds from the Child Care and Development Block Grant to supply providers with diapers for children whose care the block grant subsidized.

The bills went nowhere. Nor should we expect them to, now that CCDBG has been reauthorized. We shouldn’t mourn them, I think, well-meaning as they were.

Fewer children received CCDBG-subsidized child care in 2013 than in any year since 1997. One can only suppose there would have been even fewer if states had used some of their funds for diapers.

So what’s a poor mother to do? Her best bet it seems is to get free diapers supplied by a local diaper bank. The national network includes nearly 250 of them, including one in the District, which also serves nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia.

The DC bank buys diapers, using donated funds. It also accepts diaper donations, purchased online or collected via diaper drives. Additional diapers come from the national network and from Huggies. The bank then distributes them to nonprofits that provide other services to poor and near-poor families.

So our TANF mother may not have to pay for diapers after all — or at least, not for all the diapers she needs to keep her children clean, dry and cared for by others while she tries to prepare and/or look for work that will pay enough to make diaper costs no worry.

Yet diaper needs far exceed supplies, even in communities with substantial banks. Fine as they are, the banks are no substitute for stronger safety net benefits. After all, it’s not only diapers that poor parents can’t afford.





4 Responses to What About Diapers?

  1. Kitt Cox says:

    “When something stinks, it’s time for a change” – or as a friend proclaimed – “no child wet behind”. Great start – we need to figure out some policy changes at the state level to get things moving..kittcox@gmail.com

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    And you’ve got just the right slogans for them!

  3. […] costs can be very high. I’ve already said my bit about diapers. Full-time day care in a center for an infant cost, on average, more than $10,000 a […]

  4. […] National Diaper Bank Network responded to my post on diaper needs by alerting me to a new curriculum it developed in collaboration with other members […]

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