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How the struggle to pay for diapers impacts low-income families and how nonprofits are trying to help

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 1:55 p.m. MST

Many of the mothers surveyed reported missing work because they didn’t have disposable diapers for their children’s caretakers. Others reported that diaper need resulted in them missing training programs required to be eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federal program that provides cash assistance to low-income Americans.

Losing TANF assistance only exacerbates diaper need among low-income families. For many, TANF cash is the only way they can buy diapers for their children as other government assistance programs such as SNAP (food stamps) and WIC do not cover diaper purchases.

What about cloth?

Critics of this study, including Los Angeles Times editorial writer Karin Klein, argue that disposable diapers are a convenience, not a need. Instead of supplying low-income families with disposable diapers, she suggests encouraging them to use cloth diapers. “Washing diapers definitely isn't fun,” she writes in her op-ed, “I’ve gone that route during times when family finances weren’t great and was happy to drop the routine when I was able to — but it’s doable. Generations of parents have proved this one.”

And while cloth diapers may be a cost-reducing solution for families (particularly those with a parent who can stay home) it’s not a practical solution for most low-income families, Goldblum said. Most child-care centers won’t admit children who wear cloth diapers and many low-income parents depend on day-care centers to take care of their children while they are at work.

Cleaning cloth diapers can also prove problematic for low-income parents, according to Goldblum. Most families with diaper needs rent their homes, she said, and “renters typically don't have washing machines and many laundromats don't allow people to wash diapers,” she said. Even if a family is able to find a laundromat that allows diaper washing, transporting soiled diapers via mass transit can be problematic. Goldblum tells the story of a Seattle mother who was asked to get off a bus because the smell of her son’s diaper upset other riders. “How would people react to a parent carrying a sack of dirty diapers?” Goldbum wonders.

Diaper banks

To address the issue, nonprofits dedicated to providing low-income parents and their babies with clean, well-sized disposable diapers are popping up around the country. Founders of these organizations operate based on the assumption that a small supply of diapers is a tangible way to reduce parental stress and improve child outcomes.

But most organizations' ability to fulfill their mission is limited. For example, at A Precious Child, a Broomfield, Colo., diaper bank that Isabel Ear occasionally uses, clients are only eligible for a week’s supply of diapers every quarter.

Theresa Felten, resource center director at A Precious Child (which also provides clothing and sports equipment for low-income children) acknowledges that a week’s worth of diapers every quarter doesn’t address the ongoing need of most of their clients.

“The need for diapers is so great,” she said, “and week after week more agencies contact us about clients who need diapers.” As an organization, it struggles to balance immense need with scarce resources. “We’ve decided that we want to be able to help as many families as we can,” Felten said, “We’d like to do more, but we need more diapers.”

Around the country, diaper banks are struggling with this issue. "It will take 6.57 billion diapers to keep every American baby living in poverty clean and dry this year. That's based on 3 million children under age 3 living in poverty in the United States, and a conservative six changes a day," Goldblum wrote in a column for CNN.

And while the need is immense, she's optimistic it can be met it people understand the particulars. "If we are to attack the problem, the first step is to acknowledge it. In my experience, when people learn about diaper need, they want to help," she said.


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