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The shocking link between diapers for poor babies and jobs for moms

Laws and LegislationSocial IssuesPovertySupplemental Nutrition Assistance ProgramTemporary Assistance for Needy FamiliesU.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations
Spend welfare money on diapers? A lawmaker's proposal would make California the first state to allow it.
A proposal to give poor California families $80 a month for diapers provokes a rash of angry response

Babies need diapers. When impoverished babies don't have enough diapers, bad things happen -- not just to them, but to their parents.

Sounds kind of weird, right?

But “unmet diaper need” -- a phrase that is new to me -- can impede a parent's efforts to break the cycle of poverty. A rough analogy is the “broken windows” theory of criminology, where small, seemingly insignificant problems ripple out, leading to greater breakdowns in the social order. 

Diapers, as any parent knows, are incredibly expensive, and cost an average of $100 a month. If you receive public assistance, you can’t use food stamps to pay for diapers. That hundred bucks takes a huge bite out of money meant for rent and other necessities.

We require poor parents on public assistance to demonstrate they are willing to lift themselves out of poverty by conditioning their checks on job training or school. And we sometimes help pay for child care. But we deny them a fundamental tool they need to get off public assistance. And yes, that tool is diapers. Most day care providers require parents to furnish diapers. No diapers, no child care. No child care, no work or school.

Now comes a sensible but probably doomed proposal by San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. She has offered a bill that would give families on public assistance $80 a month for diapers. The measure would apply only to families with children up to 2 years old. The bill, the first of its kind in the nation, has made it through the Assembly where no Republican voted for it, but is not expected to make it out of the Senate Appropriations Committee later this week.

Why? The bill is not cheap. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates it would cost around $119 million a year to serve 123,5000 impoverished babies and toddlers. One opponent said offering such help to the poor would only increase their dependency on the government, which is a funny argument considering the money would end when a child turns 2.

“All we are talking about, honestly, is I want people to work, I want to take away barriers to work,” Gonzalez said. “To access child care, you have to have diapers.”

She was surprised, she said, by a harsh backlash, in phone messages and social media, after her bill generated news stories last week. “The vileness of what people say has shocked me, and it takes a lot to shock me,” Gonzalez told me Monday from Sacramento. “Requests to sterilize my people, to get abortions, to quit opening our legs.”

One news story identified her as a single mother, she said, “so a lot of people thought I was a welfare mom.” (Gonzalez, who is the daughter of a farmworker, graduated from Stanford and received a law degree from UCLA.)

One inspiration for the bill was the proliferation of diaper charities in recent years, which barely make a dent in the overall need.

“Families often find themselves home-bound when they run out of diapers and make due with items like plastic bags,” said Lisa Truong, founder and executive director of Help a Mother Out, a five-year-old Bay Area nonprofit that has donated nearly 1.8 million diapers to parents in need.

“It’s really hard to believe," she said. "We had one mother who said if every mother had diapers for her baby, you would see less parents in jail. She ended up going to jail because she went out and shoplifted diapers. You can imagine. Her child was placed in foster care.”

Last year, a first-of-its-kind peer-reviewed study in the journal Pediatrics examined the health impact of diaper need. A mother working full time earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the study said, would spend more than 6% of her gross annual income of $15,080 on diapers.

The study’s four authors -- who, big surprise, are all women -- found that about a third of poor families were not able to provide their babies with adequate numbers of diapers, resulting in increased parental anxiety, stress and negative effects on their babies’ health, with an increase in diaper rashes and urinary tract infections.

Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty said $80 a month is a “modest number,” considering the benefits of adequate diapering.

“If parents stay home, they can recycle the diapers or let the child go diaperless or find other coping mechanisms,” Bartholow said. “But without clean diapers, you definitely cannot participate in day care settings … and there is mounting evidence that child who participates in day care is more likely to be ready for kindergarten, graduate high school and even go to college.”

Truong said her agency helped one mother who had been using handmade cloth diapers for her baby because she could not afford disposables. “No one would watch her baby because of that, and she could not attend GED classes. Because of our diapers, she was able to complete her GED.”

Even if this proposal were to make it out of committee and onto Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, it wouldn't do a thing to help the many families who are not on public assistance but who can’t afford diapers. And before anyone starts yammering about how people who can’t afford diapers should not have babies, let me point out that most folks living in poverty have jobs. They just can’t earn enough to live on.

As California’s fiscal outlook improves, it seems penny wise but pound foolish to overlook this innovative idea to help folks -- especially single mothers -- climb out of poverty.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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