One State’s Plan to Ease the ‘Invisible’ Diaper Gap for Families

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A third of families nationwide experience diaper need, regardless of age, race or income, data shows. Washington state will allocate funding for diaper banks in its latest budget to help close that gap.

Imagine your baby is screaming because his diaper is wet. But you can’t change him, because you’ve run out of diapers, and you can’t afford to buy more.

Maybe you improvise, fashioning a makeshift diaper from a paper towel, or a T-shirt, or sheets of newspaper and strips of duct tape. But that solution is temporary, and it’s insufficient—those household items aren’t meant to be diapers, and babies, depending on their age, need to be changed up to 10 times per day.

Diaper need—the term for a lack of access to adequate supplies of diapers—is surprisingly common. A third of families nationwide have experienced diaper need, regardless of age, race or income, according to a 2017 study commissioned by diaper brand Huggies. That need affects families in multiple ways, including professionally (three out of five adults have missed work due to insufficient supplies of diapers, which parents are typically expected to provide when sending an infant to day care) and mentally (stress, depression and low self-esteem are higher among parents who can’t afford diapers for their babies).

“We know diaper need is a very invisible issue for most folks until they’re in a situation where they experience it,” said Sarah Cody Roth, executive director of WestSide Baby, a Seattle-based nonprofit diaper bank that provides diapers, wipes and other essentials to families in need. “It is so incredibly prevalent, and it is a problem that without public investment, and without recognition, we cannot address on the scale we need to.”

This year, with the need exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, legislators in Washington state agreed. Lawmakers floated several diaper-related proposals during the legislative session, most notably a budget provision to provide certain low-income households with an $80 monthly diaper stipend.

That initiative, suggested to lawmakers by the advocacy wing at WestSide Baby, gained traction in the state legislature largely due to support from a newly formed Moms Caucus. The group of 16—12 women, four men—was spearheaded in part by Rep. Tana Senn, a Democrat from Mercer Island and the chair of the House Children, Youth and Families Committee.

Senn, a mother of two, had volunteered at food banks but wasn’t familiar with the concept of a diaper bank. There are at least 10 across Washington state, according to the National Diaper Bank Network—but unless you or someone you know are personally affected, it’s an available service that’s easy to miss, she said.

“I was surprised at how many there are. When this idea was brought to me, I learned a lot,” she said. “There’s great need here, and during the pandemic, that need just dramatically grew and grew. And if you’re choosing between feeding your kids or diapering them, you’re going to choose to feed them. Diapers are really kind of a baby tax—it’s just an expense that some other families don’t have. And you really, really need them.”

Diaper need swells with pandemic
Diaper need has always existed, Cody Roth said, but it grew dramatically during the pandemic. In 2019, WestSide Baby distributed roughly 1.5 million diapers, its largest total ever. In 2020, that number ballooned to 2.4 million—a 60% increase. 

Eastside Baby Corner, a diaper bank based in Issaquah, increased its diaper distribution by 36% in that same time period, a jump officials said came largely from families who had never accessed social services before but needed help after losing their jobs when the state shut down to stall the spread of Covid-19.

“These were families that were on the bubble—essentially the working poor, but people who were still making it,” said Jack Edgerton, the organization’s executive director. “A lot of those folks were either experiencing Covid within their households or had lost jobs because they were working in the service sector. We expanded by partnering with a number of organizations we’d never heard of before that were serving very specialized populations, including immigrants and other hard-hit communities.”

Senn’s original budget proposal would have granted $80 per month for diapers to households receiving payments through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, otherwise known as welfare. The initiative was similar to a program in California, which provides a $30 monthly stipend for diapers.

But the proposal morphed during budget negotiations, Senn said, partly due to its expected cost (about $2.8 million per year) and the two-year projected timeline for implementation. Instead, legislators opted to send funds directly to diaper banks, diverting $5 million from the state’s general fund—$2.5 million per year over the next two years—to “administer grants to diaper banks for the purchase of diapers, wipes and other essential baby products for distribution to families in need.”

The funds will be allocated through the state Department of Commerce, which must “give priority to providers serving or located in marginalized, low-income communities or communities of color,” as well as providers “that help support racial equity.”

The initiative, included as a line item in the biennial budget approved last month by the legislature, is enough money to purchase roughly 29 million diapers, Cody Roth said. Gov. Jay Inslee has yet to sign the budget, and details of the program remain unclear, including the application process and how much funding each diaper bank might expect to receive.

But the inclusion of the program is huge, Edgerton said. The recognition of diaper need by the legislature could spark the creation of more diaper banks, particularly in areas outside of the greater Seattle area, where families in need have far fewer resources.

“Those families are desperately in need of places to turn,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the legislature declaring this as a need could help to spur the growth and sustainability of diaper banks across the state.”

The appropriation is not permanent, Cody Roth noted, and would need to be renewed in subsequent budgets or codified in legislation. But the progressive nature of the state, and the mobilizing power of the Moms Caucus, are reasons for optimism, she said.

“I think the House Democrats’ Moms Caucus was the reason that this got traction—because they get it, in a way that folks who aren’t caring for children might not get it in the same visceral and immediate way,” she said. “We didn’t have to fight to make this understood. The legislature is hard to predict, but I’m incredibly hopeful there will be a permanent public investment in eliminating this unmet need.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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