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For many of us in the Believe community, the general idea of Diaper Need is apparent. 1 in 3 families struggle to afford diapers. But what does this really mean? How can something so simple as a diaper be the difference between getting out of poverty and becoming homeless?

Counting money in a dark room

For parents, especially mothers, living in poverty, this need for diapers is a nearly everyday dilemma. One that, for the most part, goes unnoticed and unaddressed. There is little to no government funding or support, far too few diaper drives and banks, and too many judgmental ideas of parents in poverty.

What does Diaper Need in America look like?

Every 41 seconds a child is born into poverty in the U.S., and their parents, most of whom are working, cannot cover the cost of a diaper. On average, one baby will go through almost $100 worth of diapers per month. On minimum wage, this cost is nearly impossible to afford when you take food, rent, daycare, and medical expenses into the equation.

Empty store shelves with a warning notice

To make matters worse, the pandemic has cost the jobs of several Americans including those parents living in poverty. COVID-19 has also made finding affordable pull-ups nearly impossible. Diaper Banks and drives, do their best to ease this struggle, but they are often faced with their own set of setbacks.

How does poverty affect Diaper Need and vice versa?

Diaper Need and poverty are a vicious cycle. Where there is one, there is the other for several parents and children in the US. What many people fail to realize is that poverty is not a constant for several families. Many of these parents had jobs when their children were born. They could get by and cover the necessary expenses. But if even one parent loses their job, this could mean poverty and inability to provide for their children’s basic needs.

Someone holding a savings jar full of coins

Two-thirds of the parents experiencing diaper need have jobs. This being said, they can’t work because without diapers, many daycare centers will not accept the children. Daycare centers expect parents to provide enough diapers for the entire day. Without daycare, parents are forced to stay home and watch their children making it impossible to keep a job.

According to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the poorest 20% of families in the US spent almost 14% of their household income on diapers in 2014. Parents in poverty can get food and clothes at a pantry or with food stamps, but this does not apply to diapers.

Furthermore, the poverty tax needs to be taken into account. When diapers are purchased in bulk, say at big box retailers, they are drastically cheaper per diaper than when purchased in smaller quantities. For example, when bought in bulk, each diaper costs about 25 cents. When bought individually, however, each diaper costs around $1.50. Parents in poverty can not afford to buy that many diapers at once, so they’re forced to pay more for smaller amounts of diapers. The diaper need and poverty cycle continues.

Diaper Banks and their Impact on Diaper Need

Diaper banks in communities help families meet such a basic need, but the effect is so much greater. They are keeping parents in the workforce, helping our healthcare system save money, and allow children a better shot at early education.

For many parents in poverty, especially those in rural areas of the country, diaper banks are their only lifeline. Many parents will drive hours to diaper banks in hopes of picking up a few packs to get them through the week.

With the pandemic, diaper need has increased so much that diaper banks have reported doubling their distribution. Without jobs, these parents are relying even more on support from the community.

Families that rely on disability, report that the income they receive from the disability payments is not enough to supply diapers for their children, meaning even more parents that rely on diaper banks.

With all of this need, diaper banks struggle to keep up with the demand especially since most are volunteer based and rely on donations. In addition, it can be difficult to bring awareness of these resources to families in rural parts of the US. Many of these families must turn to alternative solutions. 

Alternative Solutions

A baby wearing a cloth diaper crawling

Without funds to buy disposable diapers, proximity to diaper banks, or simply not knowing these resources exist, many parents in poverty are forced to find less conventional and less healthy solutions.

Parents have reported resorting to maxi pads or towels to keep their children clean and dry for a couple of hours. When this isn’t an option, some parents will rely on daycare centers. Occasionally, childcare centers will provide diapers for the children that don’t have any. These facilities have reported that some of the children will return the next day with the same diaper the child left the center with the day before. Desperate parents risk infections, diaper rash, and more by keeping the same diaper on their child for extended periods of time and overnight. These parents face the dilemma of keeping their child dry and comfortable or preventing infection.

Cloth diapers have proved to be a solution for some parents, but this doesn’t work for everyone. Many daycare centers will not accept cloth diapers, while many laundromats do not allow cloth diapers in their machines. They can also be difficult to deal with for parents that use public transportation.

Government Aid

Upwards view of the USA flag on a pole with the wind blowing against it

When families first fall into poverty, they are often surprised to discover that government assistance programs, like food stamps or Women Infants Children (WIC), do not consider diapers as a valid use for these funds. This is because diapers are not considered a nutritional need, but rather a hygiene product.

Medicaid does not cover the cost of diapers either, unless the baby’s doctor states they are medically necessary. This could be the case if the baby has an infection or diaper rash, which, not surprisingly, often arises from leaving a diaper on for too long due to diaper need.

Welfare reform in 1990 eliminated the cash assistance program that most low-income parents relied on. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was the replacement, but less than 25% of these families can access this program.

Diaper need remains a silent struggle in this country with reliance on short supply diaper banks, the National Diaper Bank Network, the Good+Foundation, and programs like Believe Diapers’ 1 for 1 Diaper matching.

“Am I even fit to be a mom?”

A woman conerned thinking next to a curtain scratching her head

Diaper need brings many parents to their knees. It brings up questions like, “What if I shouldn’t have had these children”, “Am I even fit to be a mom?”, “Will my children get taken away from me?”

Parents question whether their children would have a better life with someone else. Without diapers, how can these parents feel complete? How can they feel fit to care for these children if they can’t provide basic needs? This is a feeling no parent deserves to experience. 

People outside the situation looking in, many times ask uninformed and demeaning questions. For example, when other parents or people in general are asked to donate diapers to their local diaper banks, many times they’ll ask questions like, “Why did they have kids in the first place if they can’t afford diapers?” They’ll bring up points like, “They just need to get a job” or “Why can’t they just use cloth diapers instead?”

These questions do not have simple answers as we’ve seen throughout this article. “Getting a job” requires daycare, which requires diapers. Furthermore, when they do get a job, parents need to pay for rent, utilities, food, medicine, and more. Cloth diapers, as previously mentioned, aren’t always accepted at daycares or laundromats. It is not as simple as it may seem to onlookers.

Diapers may not be the answer to poverty or homelessness in our country, but they can be the difference between having a job and a source of income for many families. Diaper need is a powerful topic, one that boils down to basic human dignity. They are a symbol for who these people are as parents. 

Believe Diapers has donated over 1,330,913 diapers to 40,000+ U.S. families in need. Through our partnership with the Good+Foundation, we donate a premium Believe Diaper to a U.S. family in need for every one you buy. That means you can also take a part toward ending Diaper Need in America one diaper at a time.