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Poverty in 2013: When Even Diapers Are a Luxury

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- 1694 days ago -
Being a poor mother in the United States today means reusing diapers and struggling to afford food. But House Republicans think they have it too easy.

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Kit B (276)
Tuesday October 1, 2013, 8:12 pm
Photo Credit: Feeding Bottles (Reuters/Carolina Camps)

Here’s a little window into poverty, American- style. According to a Yale University study published in August in Pediatrics magazine, almost 30 percent of low-income women with children in diapers can’t afford an adequate supply of them, with Hispanic women and grandmothers raising grandchildren the most likely to be in need. Some women are forced to make one or two nappies last the whole day, emptying them out and putting them back on the baby. Based on a survey of almost 900 low-income women in and around New Haven, Connecticut, investigators found the lack of diapers—such a simple thing—had profound and complex effects. The risks to children’s health are obvious: rashes, urinary tract infections, painful chafing. (If a mom is too poor to afford diapers, she probably can’t afford diaper cream or wipes or baby powder, either.) But to their surprise, the study authors also found that not being able to provide this necessary item (to say nothing of having a baby prone to fussing because of the discomfort of a constantly wet and dirty bottom) was a major cause of mental problems like stress, anxiety and depression in mothers. Maternal depression, we know, is associated with all kinds of problems in children, especially for poor kids, who need heroic parenting to overcome the many obstacles they face. Diapers are also necessary for kids entering daycare—no diapers, no enrollment. And no enrollment may mean a mother can’t take a job. For want of a diaper, a future could be lost. Two futures.

How could something so basic be in such short supply? Diapers are expensive—up to $100 a month—particularly for women who don’t have transportation and must rely on bodegas and local convenience stores. Some women reported spending 6 percent of their total income on paper nappies. And before you say, “Let them use cloth,” Marie Antoinette, bear in mind that diaper services are expensive, few poor women have their own washing machines, most laundromats don’t permit customers to launder dirty diapers and most daycare programs don’t allow cloth diapers. Like fresh fruit and vegetables, humanely raised meat and dairy products, and organic baby food, cloth diapers are the province of the well-off. Despite this clear need, however, diapers are not covered by the food stamp program (SNAP) or by the Women, Infants, and Children feeding program. The government apparently finds them unnecessary, like other hygiene products (toilet paper, menstrual supplies, toothpaste, even soap), which are also, unlike food, subject to sales tax. Never mind that babies can’t choose not to pee and poo and did not select their parents. Never mind, too, that those grandmothers who are the hardest hit caregivers are performing a crucial social task—and saving the taxpayer millions—by keeping those kids out of foster care. Food, it’s true, is even more basic than diapers. But some people believe low-income children don’t really need that either. If House Republicans have their way, 4 to 6 million SNAP recipients may soon find themselves bounced from the rolls. This, at a time when the Department of Agriculture tells us that 17.6 million households regularly go hungry, up from 12 million ten years ago. Proving yet again that there really is a difference between the parties, Republicans want to cut the food stamp budget by $40 billion over the next ten years. Let them drink tea! Seriously, are they out of their minds? Don’t believe them when they say the cuts are fiscally necessary. Governments can always find money for the things they want—like increasing subsidies for rich farmers (or bombing Syria). Food stamps are one of the most effective government programs, keeping countless people from outright destitution. This is about ideology—the dismantling of a social compact that goes all the way back to the New Deal, and the promotion of inequality as a civic virtue. Tennessee Tea Party Congressman Stephen Fincher must not have been thinking about his $3.5 million in crop subsidies when he told The New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg that the Bible says, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Of the 23 million households currently receiving SNAP, three-quarters include children, the disabled or the elderly. What sort of work should they be doing to earn their supper? Forty-one percent of food stamp recipients live in a household where someone has a job—but they don’t earn enough to feed their families. If anyone is freeloading, it’s employers like Walmart who in effect have the taxpayer subsidize their workforce. The Bible-quoting reactionaries conveniently forget that Jesus also said, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” And he may have said the poor will always be with us, but he didn’t add, “And let’s make sure we keep it that way.”

America has always had a mean streak where poor people, especially poor people of color are concerned, but at our best it’s been tempered by a sense of collective responsibility and, dare I say it, common sense. Are those days gone? On Fox News earlier this month, New Jersey school therapist and counselor Thomas Kersting spoke in favor of a school policy of denying lunch to low-income children whose parents had neglected to fill out eligibility forms. He thought it was “a little harsh” to throw the food into the garbage in front of the child, but hey, if the kid goes hungry, it’s “a teaching moment.” Kersting goes Dickens’s Mr. Bumble one better: Oliver Twist got in trouble for wanting seconds. Kersting doesn’t think poor children even deserve firsts. Diapers, food stamps, even the lowly school lunch. God bless the child who’s got her own.

September 8–14 is National Diaper Need Awareness Week.

Can you help a mother out?

Visit to donate and find out about volunteering at a local diaper bank—or starting your own. No computer?

You can mail a check to National Diaper Bank Network, 129 Church Street, Suite 611, New Haven, CT 06510.

By: Katha Pollitt | The Nation |


JL A (281)
Tuesday October 1, 2013, 8:35 pm
Is there any appropriate response other than tears and outrage?

Kit B (276)
Tuesday October 1, 2013, 8:55 pm

Even a small donation will help.

Our government can afford can afford to piss away over one trillion dollars on a bomber ( F-35) no one wants and will probably never fly, but feeding our most vulnerable and needy, well we just have far too much debt for that.

Sherri G (128)
Tuesday October 1, 2013, 9:27 pm
This makes me sick for Mother's too poor to afford diapers. Think those diapers should be dropped on the doorstep of every Republican without a social conscience for those in desperate need. I tweeted the story to my followers and Senators Boxer and Feinsten asking them if they can help? You are absolutely right Kit the damn F35 is a complete failure and totally unneeded. Yes, that money should fund real causes like this one. TY for posting Kit Noted.

Barbara K (60)
Wednesday October 2, 2013, 5:58 am
The republicans in congress are a pack of deluded freaks. They don't care about us, or the country. They are strictly for their own interests and to see how much bullying they can get away with before others fight back. I hope their voters have smartened up and checked out just what idiots they are sending to congress to run the country and how they affect all of us, not just those who voted for them.

Sheila D (194)
Wednesday October 2, 2013, 12:06 pm
The only freeloaders I am aware of are the GOPTP. They certainly don't earn the salaries they are fraudulently recieving from taxpayers. We all know they'll be the biggest proponents of a Special Session - to get work done that should have been taken care of instead of their obstructing, obfuscating, and outright game playing.

Terrie Williams (798)
Wednesday October 2, 2013, 3:53 pm
Can one imagine what 1 trillion dollars would do for these mothers and their children. I can. For the price of just ONE of their precious, unwanted and unneeded swingin' di*k war toys, ALL these mothers and grandmothers and children would be cared for and have the things they need in order to survive or go out and find a job.....albeit a low paying one (because that's all the Rethugs are willing to put out there for all of us anymore)...but nooooooooooo the war hawks (insects who have never worn a uniform in the first place or are military contractors looking to keep their big paychecks coming in) just goota have what if it never works...the taxpayers are footing the bill.

This makes me so sick and angry......

Arielle S (313)
Wednesday October 2, 2013, 5:31 pm
Yet one more thing the GOP is clueless about. Great article, Kit...heartbreaking, but yet another eye-opener. I'm finding it harder and harder to make meaningful comments because there is so much anger, sadness and frustration all mixed together these days...

Bryna Pizzo (139)
Wednesday October 2, 2013, 7:40 pm
In addition, to the problems with a lack of diapers this portion of the article exposes the evil nature of the Republicans. "If House Republicans have their way, 4 to 6 million SNAP recipients may soon find themselves bounced from the rolls. This, at a time when the Department of Agriculture tells us that 17.6 million households regularly go hungry, up from 12 million ten years ago. Proving yet again that there really is a difference between the parties, Republicans want to cut the food stamp budget by $40 billion over the next ten years. Let them drink tea! Seriously, are they out of their minds?" - See more at:

Ganaisha Calvin (7)
Wednesday October 2, 2013, 10:24 pm
thanks for sharing

TomCat S (129)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 1:28 am
Poverty is RepubliCorp's main product!

Susanne R (235)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 8:31 am
It's been said thousands of times before, but it bears saying once again: why do Republicans deny women access to birth control, which essentially forces them to have children they can't afford and locks them into their cycle of poverty, when they refuse to help them after the child is born? How can you fight tooth and nail for the unborn and turn your backs on them once they actually enter this world? I can't help but believe they're ensuring that when they start another war to protect their interests, they'll have other people's children to fight it. Let's face it: they don't send their own children into harm's way. And they don't care about anyone but themselves.

pam w (139)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 8:59 am
What Suzanne just said!

Arielle S (313)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 9:02 am
I asked our grocery store manager if they get a lot of people with food stamps - he said, "oh, yeah - it's the biggest money maker for us". In other words, if they cut food stamps, they not only hurt the people, they hurt businesses as well. When you realize that things like diapers, kleenex, toilet paper, pet food are not included in food stamps, doesn't it make you even angrier? I hope we're all emailing, calling, writing the Stupid Group who are trying to make life even more miserable for the poor. They need to hear how angry we are with them....

Susanne R (235)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 9:05 am
"You cannot currently send a star to Arielle because you have done so within the last day."

I owe you one, Arielle!

Sheryl G (363)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 9:16 am
Well written article, took a complex situation made simple and down to earth on how it affects many people.

The adage of take a walk in my shoes or moccasins is more than a cliche it is what many must do daily and have had few who are in their corner bringing this awareness to the general public.

I've seen comments like "let them use cloth diapers" and yes, that seems a logical point, if they didn't have to keep buying over and over again diapers that it would be a cost savings. However, in this society today that isn't something that the poor can do as explained by the article.

I worked for many years with those who were struggling financially in life. There are many reasons why the individual falls into that position. It isn't so easy to say, just go get a job, there are many obstacles for many of those who are in struggle even when the economy is doing well. Everything from a safe and affordable place for their children to be while they are working, to the ability to obtain medical care so they feel well enough to be able to work, to having a place to keep themselves clean and have clothes that are suitable for interview.

During my career I saw the continued cutbacks from the services we provided to those of us who were doing the job to help those in struggle. We were given more to do with less of us to do the job, we were asked to fill in for staff that were no longer being hired but was our support staff. In good times our positions were high burn out rates, but with pay freezes, being asked to do more and given less to do it with our positions became fewer and those that finally left were never replaced. Now those positions, if filled at all, are filled with bodies that are told to do one thing, a narrow point of offering, smaller all the time, and not to question, certainly not to offer a shred of guidance.

We were the guides, we were the ones who understood the system to help those in struggle to get a leg up. I see now that too many in struggle have no where to turn, there is little to nothing left to turn to. Look at all the charts, less for all safety net programs and in some areas those don't exist at all even if some areas still may offer it however in less proportions.

I am one of those Grandmothers who is helping a child who can't launch, caught up in this horrible place of low pay, dead end, seasonal and part time jobs that offer nothing in benefits and certainly one can't get a place to live on with temporary and might not have the job next week income. Try to save on sporadic income for the rental application fees, the turn on your utility fees, the security deposits, the first two months rent, and on and on just to get into a place, then many if they manage that, sit in empty apartments as there is nothing to buy furniture, pots and pans, and bedding with.

A system that doesn't help the one parent to make the other parent do their share of financial helping even when directions to their door was given. Now with cutbacks the dates of perhaps legally forcing him to do his part is pushed back further and further. So who is left, the Grandmother, who is seeing her child struggle and an innocent that this system does little for and what little is being offered in food is constantly being spoken it may end.

These Elites have all the answers though, they wiggle out of as much in tax as possible, pay as little as they can in wages, tilt the system to their advantage on Wall Street and the Banks pick the people's wallets with a new fee or new scam. Then when they saw that the people were getting angry via the Tea Party, the Elites saw that the anger was rising up, so they deflect that anger towards the Government and away from them. What they fail to tell is that this Government, they bought, is working for them. Look behind the curtain as the saying goes.

So we have some real problems in this Country, but it isn't the children getting some food stamps, the pregnant women getting WIC, the Elders collecting their Social Security that they paid into, nor the Disabled that we all should be glad we don't walk in their shoes. The people of this Country need to stop picking on the low lying fruit and look higher up that tree and direct their actions accordingly. In the meantime there is no one that is working harder to keep these children dressed, fed, and a roof over their head than the poor and the many Grandmothers who have watched their own pensions drained by Wall Street and the threats made to their Social Security.

. (0)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 9:56 am
They won't be happy until they've murdered all the surfeit population below a certain class. While they are doing this the increased suffering and degradation are rejoiced at as a sweet smelling incense before their idol, Maximum Short Term Profit.

Lindsey O (19)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 1:42 pm
Without question all too many people are having real problems struggling along.

When it comes to the cloth diapers, one doesn't need a washing machine - before there were washing machines people did wash them by hand (and some still do). So except for daycare requirements babies at home don't have to have disposable diapers. (Not that I ever want to wash out a poopy diaper by hand - but, then, I wouldn't want the source of the poop either.)

Kit B (276)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 1:55 pm

True Lindsey my grandson is in cloth diapers which are so much more expensive than disposable diapers. That does not include the price of a diaper service, which is all but extinct these days. Very cheap disposable diapers are still not cheap.

I bought a few cases and dropped them off a CCA, local charity that will know who needs them.

Lindsey O (19)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 2:15 pm
Miss Kit, I checked on the internet - a cloth diaper can be purchased there from 50 cents per diaper on up. And since washing by hand eliminates the need for expensive diaper services, the cloth ones will definitely be cheaper than the disposables. Seeing to a baby's needs overall is never cheap but there are less expensive ways of doing it.

Kit B (276)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 2:24 pm

Actually they can be purchased for 34 cents - and will hold up for at least 2 or 3 washings. What you do not know about cheap diapers is a lot.

That is all irrelevant. We do have millions of people in real need. We can nit pick and tell them what they SHOULD be doing, or we just do some little thing to offer help.

Maybe the woman that just ran a rampage in DC just needed some help, I guess we will never know.

Sheryl G (363)
Thursday October 3, 2013, 7:57 pm
And yes, we can nit pick. It is a shame in a Country such as ours that we have such situations to begin with. It's a disgrace and it is created by people who would rather have a system this way than a more humane way to live for all of us. The so called richest Country in the world and we can't do better than this? Not when 95% of the wealth goes to so few, this sad fact of how others must scrimp by due to this tilted economy.
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