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A study of one city finds nearly 30 percent of poor families don't have enough for their children.

If you’ve never been responsible for the care of a baby, you probably haven’t given much thought to diapers – how much they cost, where to buy them, how many you need to get through the week. The idea of a “diaper crisis” might sound far-fetched or even amusing to you.

If, on the other hand, you have ever been the one making sure that a baby stays clean and dry, you can imagine all too well what it would be like if your diaper supply ran out because you simply couldn’t afford to buy more. Stressful doesn’t even begin to cover it.

A new study just published in the journal Pediatrics [PDF] shows that the diaper crisis is all too real in economically disadvantaged communities in the United States. It looked at women in the Greater New Haven area in Connecticut, searching out low-income caretakers who “may be outside of the usual clinical systems of care.” Researchers ultimately interviewed 877 women who were recruited for the study from public housing, health clinics, day care centers, beauty salons, and other places where mothers and grandmothers gather. More than one in four of those surveyed -- almost 30 percent – said they didn’t have as many diapers as they needed.

The need was greater among Hispanic women than among African American or white respondents, and grandmothers raising grandchildren also had a higher rate of need.

Running short on Pampers or Huggies, according to the researchers, can have a negative impact on essentially every aspect of a family’s life.

First, there’s the financial strain. Researchers estimated that buying enough diapers for one child costs $18 a week, or $936 a year – more than 6 percent of your gross income, if you’re making the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and working full-time.

In order to save money, mothers will sometimes go longer between diaper changes, causing babies to become uncomfortable and irritable. One in 12 of the women even reported resorting to scooping out the contents of a diaper and reusing it, a practice that can result in urinary tract infections and diaper rash.

Babies often aren’t allowed into day care centers if their mothers can’t provide a diaper supply when dropping them off, in some cases potentially endangering a woman’s access to job training programs or other types of assistance.

The study also found that women who said they were short on diapers were more likely to have mental health needs. And not having diapers can make a bad mental health situation much worse, as anyone who has dealt with a wet and squalling infant can imagine.  “[A]n insufficient supply of diapers is not only a risk factor for poor infant and child health but also for maternal mental health,” researchers wrote, “potentially diminishing maternal sense of competence and increasing maternal stress, which ultimately leads to potential negative impacts on child health and development.”

Cloth diapers are not an option for most families living in poverty because many don’t have their own washing machines, and Laundromats routinely prohibit washing diapers.

While there are a host of assistance programs aimed at getting poor families adequate supplies of food, diapers are not typically part of any of those programs. There are “diaper banks” in some communities, and 10 percent of those surveyed said they use those to get by. Another 10 percent got help from family or friends. Churches and other sources were cited by 3 percent.

But the need exceeds the supply. In Detroit, Marybeth Levine of the Detroit Area Diaper Bank told CBS Detroit that her agency hands out 40,000 diapers a month, and that it’s still not enough. The implications for families already under stress are grim, she says: “We’re trying to focus on ways to reduce incidences of child abuse and take away the factors,” said Levine. “Well, one of these factors is: Does a family have what they need to care for the child? And if they don’t have an adequate supply of clean diapers then it’s, you know, one of the ingredients that can cause it, unfortunately.”

In 2011, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, introduced the Diaper Investment and Aid to Promote Economic Recovery, or DIAPER, Act. It would have allowed child-care center to use federal funds for diapers so that their caretakers could go to work. De Lauro noted that one in five women have to miss work or other obligations to stay home with their kids because they can’t afford the diapers necessary to take them to day care.

The legislation was attacked by conservative groups and ultimately defeated. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh made special sport of scoffing at the proposal, saying “this gives a new meaning to the term pampering the poor.” He and others ridiculed the idea that poor women might need assistance to leave the home for work or other reasons.

The new study should give DeLauro and other advocates of diaper assistance support for their arguments that the need for diapers is real, and that providing them is a reasonable part of any other aid program for poor families. Rush Limbaugh will almost certainly remain unconvinced. He probably hasn't spent too much time changing diapers.

Top image: Laboko / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Sarah Goodyear
Sarah Goodyear

Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.

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