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Diaper Need: The Invisible Part of Poverty

Poverty is not an identity; rather, it is a state - one you can move in and out of. Diapers, however, are material basic necessities all little ones require, as essential as food, shelter, and clothing. Yet, many families struggle to provide basic needs for their little ones, but the basics aren’t basic, they’re essential.

Almost 5 million little ones live in poverty in the United States, and yet, discussions about poverty often overlook diaper need. No government program helps fill that need. Food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) do not provide funding for diapers because they are considered a hygiene product. Medicaid won’t cover them unless a doctor says diapers are “medically necessary” to treat a specific health concern, like diaper rash, which often occur because parents do not have enough diapers in the first place. And so, many families are forced to come up with other solutions, using a maxi pad, a shopping bag, or towels to keep their children clean and dry. The system is broken.

Small things impact big things. A seemingly small item, like a diaper, can make all the difference for a family in need. Everyone knows diapers are expensive. We joke about it: You’re pregnant and immediately the first thing we say is, “Oh wait until you have to buy diapers!”

Real change begins with real talk. No one wants to be poor. No one should ever feel the need to steal out of necessity in one of the richest countries of the world. No one should be unable to diaper their children in the richest country in the world. This is an outrage, but we just don’t talk about it. The inability to provide diapers is a silent struggle in this country. The struggle is real, but it shouldn’t be. And yet, we continue to look the other way, and we turn a blind eye to the all-encompassing reality of so many. Diaper need deserves a closer look. I, too, was completely dumbfounded when I learned about diaper need. Diapers aren’t covered by government programs, but they should be. Raising awareness about diaper need and bringing this issue to national conversations about poverty is vital to get changes in law and policy to help struggling families.

So, let’s talk about diaper need.

The National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN) defines diaper need as “the lack of sufficient supply of diapers to keep an infant or little one clean, dry, and healthy.” Diaper need has always been a prevalent issue in our country, but diaper need continues to be a growing public health issue in the United States. It has only become more evident and pervasive throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our friends, neighbors, and communities are struggling now more than ever.

While 1 in 3 families throughout the United States struggles to provide enough clean diapers for their little ones each month, the truth is that even working parents can’t cover the cost of diapers. Something as small as a diaper can make the difference between being able to make ends meet at the end of the month. The average family spends about $100 a month on diapers for just one child, and then, think about how most families have 2 or 3 little ones in diapers at a time. That’s $200 - $300 on diapers alone! Then factor in rent, food, utility bills, and other normal expenses and the average family is now struggling to make ends meet. This is a reality all too familiar to many of us.

For some mamas, diaper need can cause as much anxiety as food or housing insecurity. Unlike with food and clothes, diapers cannot be rationed or modified. The option is a disposable diaper or a cloth one, and expense many cannot afford. Diaper need causes parents and caregivers to wrestle with difficult questions like: “Am I even fit to be a mama or parent? What if I don’t deserve these kids? Will my children get taken away from me?” These are realities faced by many as diaper need does not discriminate; and yet, diapers aren’t covered by government programs, but they should be. For 1 in 3 mamas who struggle with diaper need, the greatest gift they could receive is knowing they will have enough diapers to keep their little ones healthy, safe, and dry.

What’s worse, is that diaper need has increased exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic. According to The NDBN, one third of parents and caregivers struggled to afford diapers even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the number of families turning to diaper banks has doubled and tripled in many communities. Studies show that an adequate supply of diapers reduces parental stress. No one plans to reach for a diaper and come up empty.

And yet, many of us speculate and struggle with the concept of giving away free diapers. We ask questions about why the parents aren’t “just” doing cloth diapers instead, or why the parents aren’t working, or why they had a child if they couldn’t afford it. We forget that cloth diapers are not as simple as they sound. They require high efficiency washers, or a pricey laundering service, and many childcare facilities will not use cloth diapers. We forget that most families experiencing diaper need are employed. We forget that these families who are already struggling internalize our beliefs about what families should be able to do which causes further harm. It is not our place to speculate or pass judgement.

The truth is babies require up to 12 diapers a day, and toddlers about 8. Without diapers, little ones face many negative consequences. Little ones who remain too long in a soiled diaper are exposed to potential health risks. Without diapers, little ones cannot participate in early childhood education. Most childcare centers, even free and subsidized facilities, require parents, or caregivers, to provide a day’s supply of disposable diapers. Many parents cannot go to work or school if they can’t leave their babies at childcare. A study conducted by NDBN and Huggies found that parents who struggled with diaper need missed an average of 1 day of work a week, 4 days of work a month, or 48 days of work a year.

Supply change issues and rising costs of material basic necessities disproportionately impact low-wage families and those living in poverty which can lead to increased levels of diaper need. The disruption to the global supply chain due to the COVID-19 pandemic are causing prices to skyrocket and making shelves scarce. These issues are having a direct impact on diapers and other essentials for little ones. Affordable diapers are hard to come by since the pandemic began. For many families who are contending with more than one financial setback during the pandemic, this situation can make life more stressful, like deciding between frequent diaper changes or groceries. This is where diaper banks step in to help with what is a growing problem for many.

Diaper banks – community-funded programs that offer free diapers to low-income families – distributed 86% more diapers on average in 2020 than in 2019, according to the NDBN. Diaper banks are doing incredible work serving families affected by poverty. The Maker’s Place, a grassroots effort, serves families throughout the city of Trenton and in thesurrounding area. The bank distributed 115, 847 diapers last year. And then it exploded. Distribution has grown exponentially. In 2021, it’s on track to have distributed 200,000 diapers through our 5 community partners. Our diaper bank is helping to meet this basic human need for families, it’s saving health care system dollars, it’s providing access to early childhood education, and it’s keeping families in the workforce in Trenton.

It’s not good enough. We need to really look at the gaps – who are the people we are not seeing? We know there are inequities. Just like it takes a village to raise little ones, it takes all of the collaborations of community organizations and agencies to reach and resource families, but we cannot do it alone. There has been no concrete action on diaper need at the federal level. Instead, diaper need continues to be met with indifference while more and more families are struggling. Diapers may not solve all of our problems, but sometimes diapers can be the difference for one family.

It’s an issue of basic human dignity. Together we can change that. Little actions get bigger when you put them together. A small gift goes a long way. Anyone can make a difference, including YOU! Give for change at

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