San Francisco to Offer Diapers to Low-Income Families

Sheree Guthrie is one of the thousands of people in San Francisco who are living on the short end of the city’s horrific inequality. While she’s lived in San Francisco since childhood, she, like many San Franciscans, is being priced out of the city — and can’t even afford to move, either. Trapped in a costly city with a baby and another on the way, she’s applied for government benefits to help her eat and find housing, but benefits don’t cover everything. One of those things is diapers, which can cost between $70-$100 each month for a single child, forcing parents like her to go longer between diaper changes because they can’t afford enough baby supplies to take them through the end of the month. That’s about to change, though, with the San Francisco Diaper Bank, the first government-funded diaper bank in the nation. Administered through Help a Mother Out, the program will be distributing diapers through four nonprofit organizations to families in critical need of this most basic of supplies.

Government benefits have extremely restrictive spending rules that can place challenging limitations on beneficiaries. Diapers are classified like cigarettes under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”), one of the primary resources for low-income families in the United States. While cash benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) can be used at the beneficiary’s discretion, most families sink those resources into housing and other critical needs — like menstruation supplies, which are also not covered by SNAP. That leaves them struggling to afford diapers, especially when paychecks have dwindled down at the end of the month.

5.3 million children in the United States live in poverty, and 33 percent of families report “diaper need,” a shortage of diapers at some point during the year. Toddlers typically need approximately eight diapers daily, while infants can require 12 or more. That’s a lot of diapers, and for many low-income people, predatory merchants overcharge them, knowing that diaper purchases are a critical life necessity. Corner stores and other establishments in low-income neighborhoods, already famous for inflated prices, charge $0.50 or more per diaper, in comparison with prices much lower than that at discount and warehouse stores which low-income families can’t access because they may be out of reach of public transit or inconvenient to get to — or it may be too hard to bring supplies back along a meandering assortment of public transit transfers. Affording an economy pack can also be a barrier, as it may not be possible to spend a large amount of money all at once even with a per-diaper cost savings.

Leaving children in wet diapers comes with health risks like rashes, inflammation and infection. A dry baby is a happy baby not just because wet diapers are uncomfortable, but because they’re dangerous, and many low-income parents are forced to watch their children suffer because they can’t change their diapers often enough. San Francisco’s diaper bank aims to change that, sinking nearly $500,000 annually into diaper assistance for parents who are already on CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program. Parents can show up to distribution centers to request diapers in a range of sizes for their children.

Numerous cities have diaper banks, but they’re not funded publicly like San Francisco’s is — in fact, the idea for San Francisco’s diaper bank came from an NPR story that director of planning at the San Francisco Human Services Agency happened to hear one day. Baltimore’s diaper distribution, a partnership with charity ShareBaby, is one such example. Committing government funds to the effort sends a clear message that diapers should be included in government funding to needy members of the population. In fact, California’s assembly is weighing whether diaper assistance should be offered statewide. It could also lay the groundwork for meeting other critical needs, like menstruation supplies for low-income people who put themselves at risk by not changing tampons and pads often enough, or who are forced to endure the humiliating experience of involuntarily free bleeding.

Right now, the diapers available are disposable-only, reflecting the fact that it can be difficult for low-income families to manage cloth diapers (similarly, outreach programs that offer menstrual supplies do not provide cloth pads or menstrual cups). Biodegradable disposables are available on the open market, and if they aren’t being made an option yet, hopefully they will be. Right now, the primary concern is helping needy people — when people lack access to stable housing, laundry services, and so forth, burdening them with cloth diapers can hurt more than it helps.

The diaper distribution also serves to underscore the economic imbalance in San Francisco. The outside world often views the city as the site of a new gold rush brought about by the tech industry, but in fact, San Francisco is the site of extreme income inequality. Titans of the tech industry and those making considerable salaries need service personnel from busboys to housekeepers, and their low wages aren’t keeping pace with inflation and the escalating costs of living in the city. Even those who don’t qualify for public assistance are struggling, and the city may need to consider expanding the program to other low to moderate-income residents as well.

Photo credit: Sellers Patton


JoAnn P
JoAnn Paris7 months ago

Thank you for this very interesting article.

David C
David C7 months ago


Lesa D
Past Member 7 months ago

thank you San Francisco!

thank you s.e. ...

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez7 months ago


Peggy B
Peggy B7 months ago


Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga7 months ago


Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Lorraine Anderson below makes a great point, and i agree. Thanks

hELEN h7 months ago


Danuta W
Danuta Watola7 months ago

Thank you for sharing

Lorraine A
Lorraine A7 months ago

I hate to say this, but if you can't afford diapers you cant; afford children. Thanks for sharing.