To a parent of a small child, there are few necessities more important than diapers. Eight, 10, 12 a day. They go fast.
Yet, as with so many other necessities, the price of diapers has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as a wave of pandemic-induced job loss has hit low-income workers hard, making it difficult for many to afford a necessity that costs a typical family hundreds of dollars a year.
And for some parents that’s forcing an impossible choice: Pay for food? Rent? Or diapers?
Even before March of 2020, about one-third of families with diaper-aged children in the United States were struggling to afford this necessity, but widespread unemployment sparked by COVID-19 caused diaper need to surge more than threefold, according to Newton-based Cradles to Crayons, which provides resources to low-income children. Meanwhile diaper prices jumped nearly 12 percent in the 18 months ending in June, according to data from consulting firm AlixPartners, with several diaper makers hiking prices since then.
That has prompted some parents to accelerate their plans to get their children out of diapers for good.
Rachel Kinch recently started potty-training her 3-year-old in the hopes of getting him fully out of diapers for good. Buying them had become such a burden — around $200 a month — that she decided it was time.
“Diaper prices — even the small boxes, name-brand, off-brand — they were starting at almost $26 a box,” said Kinch, who works as director of out-of-school-time programs at Cambridge Community Center. “And I felt like at that point I didn’t have a choice. These are things that children from the age of newborn all the way up to at least the age of 3 have to go through every single day.”
And for babies and younger children, of course, potty-training isn’t really an option yet.
That’s boosting demand at nonprofits that give diapers to families in need, like Cradles to Crayons, which has given out 11.3 million diapers in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, according to founder Lynn Margherio.
Nonprofit FamilyAid Boston, which supports households facing homelessness, has noticed the growing severity of the diaper crisis in Boston as well.
Every day, said president Larry Seamans, a dozen or more families arrive at its crisis shelters, carrying their belongings in plastic bags. And when shelter workers examine the contents of those bags, they find zero diapers.
Seamans said by the time they seek out emergency housing, many of those families have not had diapers in weeks — a predicament he calls a “critical public health issue.”
“We have great food programs to offset the cost of food,” he said. “But the one thing that’s been missing through and through for families living in poverty is offsetting the cost of diapers.”
Seamans was joined on a panel discussion about the issue last week by Jerilynn Sams, a patient care coordinator for mothers and babies at Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital. She said she serves a range of low-income patients in that city. Many have next to nothing for their young children, she said, and part of the hospital’s discharge package includes diapers.
“To be able to give them diapers is priceless,” Sams said. “Families are in need. They’re keeping the babies in diapers longer than they necessarily should be, and they’re trying to stretch what little funds they do have.”
Stretching on diapers can have health impacts for both babies and their parents. Children who aren’t changed on a regular basis can develop diaper rash, which manifests in a red patchwork of inflamed skin. Diapers are foundational to a baby’s comfort, Sams said, and putting clean clothes on a child with a dirty diaper can lead to a “spiraling effect” of further irritation for the baby and distress for the parent.
“They’re already stressed that they’re struggling in their work and they’re concerned about their children,” she said. “They’re doing the best they can do, but they’re also concerned that, ‘Does it look like I’m mistreating my child?’”
Though state and federal benefits — including the expanded child tax credit — have ramped up support for low-income families throughout the course of the pandemic, none are dedicated to helping meet diaper need. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is the sole cash assistance program that enables recipients to purchase diapers, but the majority of families in poverty do not get TANF.
Some on Beacon Hill are trying to address the issue, filing legislation to establish a diaper benefits pilot program. The bill is still in early stages, awaiting a hearing, with advocates hoping to gather a coalition of service providers to testify in support.
And in Washington, Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois — who, in 2018, became the first senator to give birth while in office — is leading the effort on the national stage by sponsoring the End Diaper Need Act of 2021, which would establish and expand programs providing vulnerable families with access to diapers and related supplies.
Duckworth, who joined Cradles to Crayons’ virtual panel, said the country’s diaper crisis is not just a public health issue, but an economic one. Parents cannot leave their children at a child care facility without providing the diapers they need, and this becomes a cycle: Without child care, parents can’t return to work. Without income from work, they can’t afford the diapers required to send their kids to child care centers.
”We have to turn around the way we look at this issue,” Duckworth said. “[It’s] not just about poverty, which should be more than enough, not just about changing government programs like WIC so it includes diapers, but [we must think] about it as an economic issue that keeps our nation from being competitive.”
Despite its pervasiveness, Margherio said, diaper need is a largely hidden plight. Parents try to wash disposable diapers to avoid leaving their child sitting in their own soil, but it’s a futile effort.
“When the pandemic hit, the first thing that we did was to reach out to our partners to ask them what their top needs were. Diapers was at the top of that list,” Margherio said. “Organizations like ours are on the front lines addressing these needs, but we also need a bigger response both at the federal and the state level.”
Emergency chaplain Aparecida Guilherme leads Cradles to Crayons’ volunteer-operated diaper distribution every week. Speaking through a translator, she said although Cradles to Crayons has enabled volunteers to support many families in Boston, demand for the service remains stronger than ever.
“I don’t think the public is aware of the diaper p[ublis,” Guilherme said. “We need more donations, as there are a lot of people who are in need.”
Angela Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.