As the nation has faced the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a crucial conversation about food insecurity. As Daily Kos has covered, we’ve seen unusually long lines at food banks and schools scrambling to get enough food into cafeterias to feed hungry children. One topic that gets less coverage, but is just as is essential, is diapers.
Even before the pandemic, surveys have shown that about one-third of families struggle to afford diapers. And if your first thought is, use cloth diapers, well, that is an excellent choice, but one that has a surprisingly expensive start-up cost. It’s also a labor-intensive option, especially if you don’t have a washer and dryer at home. And as recently reported by KHN, COVID-19 has made a complicated situation even worse for families between unemployment and supply chain issues that have led to higher prices. And the government, perhaps surprisingly, is little help.
While most people immediately think of babies when they hear talk of diapers, it’s important to note that older people and some people with disabilities also use diapers . The cost can be a burden—no matter the person’s age or reason for using them. According to KHN, community-funded programs that provide diapers to low-income folks distributed more than 80% more diapers in 2020 than they did in 2019. As The Washington Post reports, many low-income families lost access to publicly-funded child care during the pandemic, and with that, access to the (typically) free diapers those programs provided.
If you’re wondering why community programs are stepping up to help fill this gap, it’s primarily because diapers are a huge oversight when it comes to federal assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly called “food stamps”) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) don’t cover diapers. Technically, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) can go toward diapers, but that’s it. TANF, while better than nothing, is more difficult to qualify for than other federal assistance programs, can be accessed a limited number of times regardless of need, and, like all money, can pretty much dissolve in front of your face when it comes to the considerable cost of diapers and the amount most people buying them tend to need.
Diapers, like menstrual products, are still taxable items in most states. Low-income families absolutely need access to money they can use for diapers (and related care products, like creams, wipes, and so on), and no one should be paying taxes on products that are basically essential.
Also a factor: panic-buying in the pandemic. While people who could afford it bought tons of supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and groceries, many families also bought diapers. This made a hard situation even worse for families who simply didn’t have the money on hand to stock up—and then found themselves facing empty shelves when payday finally came. Unlike some expensive items, like a winter coat or boots, one can’t use hand-me-down diapers. And to state the obvious, diapers are not a luxury item for a person of any age; leaving a diaper on for too long can lead to actual health problems, not to mention discomfort on behalf of the person wearing it.
Families figure out ways to stretch what they have, of course; I’ve read reports of folks turning T-shirts and paper towels into makeshift diapers, as well as stuffing rags together. I’ve heard of people using tape to keep a diaper on for just long enough. But again, all of this takes time a low-income family likely doesn’t have. And frankly, it’s shameful that anyone has to work so hard and put so much time into providing basic hygiene for a loved one. The government absolutely needs to do more and provide better for people who are hurting, and if anything is a no-questions-asked scenario, diapers should definitely be it.
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