When Lee Ann Porter pawned her wedding ring, it was because she didn’t have any other options — she needed diapers for her six-month-old. It was 2004, and she had recently escaped an abusive marriage, was unemployed and struggling to care for three children by herself, she said.
“You’re trying to figure out how you’re going to get a job, how you’re going to pay for child care, if you’re going to lose your car,” Porter said. “There’s so many things you’re trying to figure out and the whole time you’re trying to calculate when you’re going to run out of diapers.”
Food stamps meant they had sustenance, and a housing program put a roof over their head. But there were no government services or nonprofits to help with diapers, according to Porter.
Federal poverty programs still don’t help with diapers — food stamps ban them, Medicaid doesn’t cover them for children, and they don’t fall under the umbrella of WIC, the supplemental nutrition program for mothers and infants.
Many American families struggle to get enough diapers for their babies — and that was before the pandemic took a sledgehammer to the finances of many Americans. According to the National Diaper Bank Network, member diaper banks reported distributing 148 million diapers in 2020, compared to 84.6 million in 2019, and served on average 287,000 children per month in 2020 compared to 188,000 in 2019.
“What diaper need comes down to is that families don’t earn enough money to provide for all of their basic necessities. And diapers are a key basic necessity,” said Phillip Vander Klay, director of policy and government relations at the National Diaper Bank Network and the Alliance for Period Supplies. “Children are expensive, having a family is expensive, living is expensive. And working families often just don’t earn enough to cover all of those expenses.”
That problem will ease somewhat for families in Louisiana, thanks to a bill that eliminates sales tax not just on diapers, but also on menstrual products. The bill was signed last month by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, and it will go into effect July 2022.
“It was quite a fight and not for the faint of heart,” said state Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman (D), who sponsored the legislation. “I lost some sleepless nights over that bill.”
Freeman said she faced major opposition in a heavily Republican state, where many of her colleagues tend to oppose any kind of tax exemption and balked at losing the $11 million of revenue the tax brings.
Her struggle is probably an indicator of what other states will face when trying to pass similar legislation, she said, but she added that the coalitional nature of the legislation helped get it across the finish line — between disabled and elderly people who use adult diapers, people who use tampons or sanitary products, and parents of infants, taxing these products affects a huge percentage of Louisiana’s population.
According to the National Diaper Bank Network, 35 states charge sales tax on diapers, which can range from 2.5 to 7 percent. Diapers cost on average $80 a month per child, or nearly $1,000 a year — a huge expense for full-time minimum wage workers making just over $15,000 a year. By reducing the sales tax, families can buy two additional diapers for every percentage point reduction in the sales tax for the same money they would have used to buy 200 diapers with tax, according to the National Diaper Bank Network.
Experts say the burden of paying for diapers weighs heavily on families. Single mothers in particular, almost a third of whom live in poverty, may not have that money to spend. With one in five American children living with a single mom — a number that increases to 58 percent for Black children and 36 percent for Latino children — many children in the United States face the reality of not having sufficient diapers.
Vander Klay, of the Diaper Bank Network, said parents report skipping meals to afford diapers and delaying rent or utility bills to keep their children clean and dry. Families also report using T-shirts and plastic bags as diapers, cleaning and reusing disposable diapers, and delaying changes as long as possible.
These conditions can lead to diaper rashes and urinary tract infections, which can threaten infant health and send families’ finances spiraling further.
“It was very difficult; we struggled to make the decision between food and diapers,” said Raziya Hill, who now runs a diaper bank called Every Bottom Covered in Buffalo, but was single and working a minimum-wage customer service job when her son was an infant. “Things were tight, and between rent and basic necessities, we went without — I just tried to go without more than he did.”
The high cost of diapers hits poor families the hardest: Low-income families with infants spend 14 percent of their income on diapers, and middle-income families spend less than 3 percent, according to government data.
It is a problem that does seem to be gaining some attention, however. In addition to state legislation, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced the End Diaper Need Act of 2021 in January, which would allow Medicaid to cover at least 200 diapers a month.
Last weekend, the House released their Appropriations budget, which requested $200 million for state-level diaper distribution. This month, the child tax credit will start hitting families’ bank accounts, which may also ease the financial burden of some basic necessities.
The pandemic, though, has made the issue all the more pressing — last year, it pushed 8 million Americans into poverty.
“The difficulty families are facing in affording basic items during the pandemic is a continuation of a trend that is largely invisible to those of us who don’t have that kind of constant financial pressure but is very much a reality for large chunks of the U.S. population,” said Beadsie Woo, the director of family and youth financial stability at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Many single mothers, a large share of whom were pushed out of their jobs because of pandemic-related layoffs or because the need for child care demanded it, are still economically reeling from the pandemic’s ongoing effects. And Black and Latina single mothers saw a decline in employment almost twice as high as that of White single mothers during the pandemic.
Porter, who once struggled to pay for diapers, is now providing them — she runs Loving Bottoms Diaper Bank in rural Illinois, which recently distributed its millionth diaper. Porter is thrilled to be helping women, she said, but she is irate that her organization has to exist at all.
“It’s frustrating to me that this has been an unseen need for so long; it’s frustrating to me that it took 10 years for me to realize that this was a problem other people experienced,” she said. “It gets me fired up. Everybody should have the dignity of having access to basic things.”
Hill agrees. She said she sees mothers “waiting with bated breath” to see if her organization is able to help them — “and they’ll just burst into tears when they find out we can.”
As Hill put it: “It’s a really unfortunate circumstance that we are in such a prosperous nation and we even have to have a conversation around whether we can help people out with this.”