Addressing the Diaper Gap: Responsible Government, not the Nanny State

There is a divide in this country between those who believe that charity and philanthropy are all that is demanded of Christians in addressing poverty and those who believe that Christians are called to support both charity and justice, demanding action from not only individual persons and civil society, but government, as well.

The fact-less, ideologically-driven opposition of some who profess to be pro-life to President Obama’s recently announced effort to ensure that more families have access to an adequate number of diapers for their children highlights this divide. For those of an economically libertarian bent, this is the perfect symbol of the overreaching nanny state. For those who believe government plays a critical role in promoting the common good (proponents of Catholic teaching, among others), this program is a good step toward addressing a real problem that demands action.

The reality is that nearly 1 in 3 families struggle to afford the diapers their babies need. And diapers are not a luxury; they are a necessity. When families cannot keep their children in clean diapers, health problems can emerge:

Families who can’t afford enough diapers risk diaper rash and urinary tract infections that can lead to hospital visits, says Megan Smith, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine….

Hard-pressed families she has worked with have tried all kinds of work-arounds: diapering babies in T-shirts, bleaching used diapers to sterilize them, leaving children in dirty diapers just a little longer to stretch a pack. Each of these tactics — as Mora worries when she considers buying the wrong size for her child — comes at a cost to the babies.

“Having to hang a diaper to dry and put it back on your baby is really unimaginable for a mother to think about,” says Kelly Sawyer Patricof, the co-president of Baby2Baby, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group that provides diapers and other necessities to families like Mora’s. “But that’s the reality of what’s happening.”

While government assistance to these families helps with many basic needs, diapers are excluded (the “diaper loophole”).To make matters worse, lower income families often pay more for diapers than others, as well:

These choices become even more pressing because the lowest-income quintile of families with infants pay 14 percent of their income for diapers alone – an average of $936 for diapers per child each year, while many higher income families pay less than half that amount. These struggling families may not have access to transportation to the big box store, the credit or capital to buy in bulk at cheaper prices, or the access to internet or ability to receive packages required for online subscription services. The technology that makes life easier for so many of us just doesn’t provide the necessary supports for these families.

The Obama administration has outlined a public-private partnership to address this problem:

A new program will allow families to purchase diapers at up to a 25 percent discount. The program is a collaboration of Jet.com, the makers of Cuties diapers, and a group of non-profit organizations.

The initiative has two main parts. The first allows anyone to purchase discounted diapers through Jet.com. The diapers will come in a package without any advertising or marketing and will include more items per package. The second part gives non-profit groups that help needy families the ability to buy diapers at an even larger discount, as well as free shipping. The organizations that purchase the diapers must have a plan in place to distribute the diapers to low-income, at-need families, either through resell or donations. If they opt to sell the diapers, they must do so at either the same cost or less than what they paid.

This partnership has the potential to do a lot of good, but further action may also be required. Last year, Keith Ellison and Rosa DeLauro of the US House of Representatives introduced the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act of 2015 (H.R. 4055) to create a demonstration project to allow states to provide diapers or a diaper subsidy for low-income and working families. Hopefully the laboratories of our democracy will seek new, creative ways to ensure every child has the diapers they need. States can also make the decision to stop taxing diapers.

Ultimately everyone should recognize that diapers are a necessity, not a luxury, and that government—whether indirectly or directly—has a responsibility to ensure that every American has access to their most basic needs.