Washington officials might not agree on who deserves welfare, but it does manage to carve out a tiny soft spot for “women, infants, and children.” Even as other programs have been slashed, nutritional assistance for babies is one of the classic “milk for mother” entitlements that have generally survived the budget ax. Unfortunately, well-fed babies have to poop, and lawmakers don’t want to touch that.
Nationwide, diapers are persistently one of the costliest aspects of raising a baby, and like food, both cost and need are relatively inelastic; diapers cost parents about $70 to $80 monthly, averaging six to 10 diapers each day. But unlike food stamps, a federal entitlement, there’s zero government assistance for diapers.
Like breastfeeding and menstruation, taking care of diapers is seen as both redolent of an unsavory bodily function and a “woman’s problem,” to be handled privately, preferably out of public view.
But the welfare debate has grown more complex as women seek greater parity in the workforce and social policies are increasingly oriented toward addressing needs that the private sector fails to meet. A bill introduced last month by Senators Al Franken and Bob Casey, the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act, doesn’t lay out any money directly to subsidize diapers but would fund state pilot projects to help develop localized programs to provide diapers to families in need.
Currently about 5.2 million babies in the United States aged 3 or younger are living in households that struggle to pay for the basics, typically including diapers, according to National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN). Babies burn through about $940 worth of diapers annually—roughly a month’s rent or a year of cell-phone service. For the poorest fifth of the income ladder, about 14 percent of their wages, about $11,200 in 2014, went into diapers. According to a study published in Pediatrics, about 30 percent of mothers surveyed report struggling to pay for diapers—a greater level of need than the rate of food insecurity among children nationwide. But while hunger and poop are both facts of life, food stamps don’t cover the natural consequence of feeding your kids.
With nearly half of workers nationwide earning less than $15 an hour, and many ineligible for income supports and health insurance, a fresh diaper can become a luxury. Public healthcare programs do not address basic infant hygiene. While unmet diaper needs can be as unhealthy for kids as malnourishment, Medicaid (which typically provides prenatal care, childbirth coverage, and health-care for poor children) does not cover diapers except in cases of medically diagnosed incontinence. Yet inadequate changing can lead to costly medical problems like diaper dermatitis and urinary tract infections.