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


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

If you can't afford a child don't have one. Birth control is very cheap. You can get it from Walmart. Why should I be expected to support everyone's children? On our health insurance we have pediatric dental, but we don't have dental for us. We don't have children now, ours are all grown. We also have to pay for pediatric care and maternity care. We are well past the child baring years. That is just not fair to us, or anyone else. We should have the choice of whether we have that coverage or not. Where are all those who scream about "choice"?

Maggie W.
Maggie D2 years ago

It sounds to me like she shouldn't have had the first baby let alone a second. There was a time when you faced the consequences of your actions. Birth control is easily attainable. Even before Roe V, Wade you could get a safe abortion in the U.S. What kind of example is she for these two children? Are we to lay all responsibility for our lives at the feet of the government? We're supposed to support her because she made bad choices? If we must reward self destructive behavior can we at least give her reusable diapers instead of disposable diapers?

Edgar Garcialuna
Edgar Garcialuna2 years ago

@ Nancy B. I'm a very liberal, pro choice, basic health for everyone and income equality guy; but the key word here is "poor", and that's where I don't agree with you. If you don't have the means to bring a new baby into this life, DON'T DO IT!.
There are many ways to avoid it nowadays, contraception messages are all over the place. Why you wanna destroy the life of a new person by being so irresponsible....

Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Depend on something more environmental friendly instead

Nancy Black
Nancy Black2 years ago

Wonder how many of those who are angry that poor mothers and their children receive health are GOP Tea Party Pro-livers who firmly believe that a woman should not be allowed abortions or insurance shouldn't pay for contraception? The fetus is important until the fetus is born than suddenly those same people condemn the mothers who can't afford abortions or contraception because everyone knows you shouldn't have a baby if you can't afford one. The most positive thing about the article is that San Francisco cares enough about life and children to help the poor. The most negative thing are many of the judgmental responses of the comments. Those people who want to control the lives of others have some responsibility about the consequences. They are willing to impose their wills on a woman's reproductive rights, but they sure don't want to have to pay the piper once the babies are born.

Susan Winkelman
Susan Winkelman2 years ago

While I can appreciate a low-income person wanting another child (for whatever reason), not being able to afford the child is another story. If you cannot afford diapers, you are probably getting free or some assistance for child care, you are probably getting food assistance, and now diaper assistance. Why is it that people feel that someone else should assist with raising their child? If you are struggling with one child, please do not have another - birth control is free isn't it?

Andrea G.
Past Member 2 years ago

Never heard about "diaper banks" before ... Interesting.

Joanna M.
Joanna M2 years ago

Re: Jenny S. - LOL, for someone on a rampage about how everyone is judging circumstances they don't know, YOU are doing precisely that! You are quick to assume that everyone, or the majority, have some noble excuse, such as "not knowing" about contraceptives (find me a teenager who hasn't looked up more sex info on Google than any adult will ever know!), that they were raped (must be a HUGE population getting pregnant from that), etc.

Careful you don't get singed from the fires getting closer to your own butt...

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thank you