Does your state charge sales tax on diapers?

We think about basic needs and their availability to people struggling to make ends meet.  But there is not a universal definition of what constitutes a basic need, or agreement on whether such needs should be taxed.  That is apparent when considering the sales tax policies of each state.  For the most part, each state has its own approach to sales tax–whether there is one, what rate it will be, and what it applies to.  Some states, like Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana, and Oregon, opt not to have a sales tax at all.  (Hawaii does not officially have a sales tax, but it has an excise tax which business can pass on to the consumer, so it is essentially a sales tax.)  Many states exempt certain basic necessities from tax, but each state has its own approach to what is considered a basic necessity.  For example, several states exempt food, but they often have individual definitions of what counts as food.  Likewise, some state exempt medical supplies, which for some states include all diapers (as in Massachusetts), adult diapers and incontinence supplies only (as in Connecticut, Maryland, and Nebraska), and in other states explicitly do not include diapers.  In other states, diapers are not taxed because they fall under a general exemption for clothing (as in Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont).  Still other states have annual sales tax holidays on certain items (generally during the first week of August or so as families are doing “back to school” shopping), often including diapers.

We have a Sales Tax Survey identifying the specific sales tax policies as they relate to diapers for each state .  Thanks to the Yale Law School Arthur Liman Research Project Students, Matthew Smith, Irina Vaynerman, and Tara Rice for their legal research assistance.

You can find more interesting research related to diaper need on our website here.

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Mismeasuring Poverty

Mark Levinson of The American Prospect has an interesting article, Mismeasuring Poverty, in which he argues that the Federal Poverty Level, developed 50 years ago, measures the wrong expenses. He also argues that the Supplemental Poverty Measure, developed by the current administration, measures the right expenditures, but at the wrong levels.  The U.S. poverty line is now approximately 36% of the nation’s median income rather than 50%, as it was when first established 50 years ago.

Most other developed countries use a measure of poverty based on the share of families below 50 percent or 60 percent of median income. Adam Smith explained the rationale for this in The Wealth of Nations. He defined the lack of “necessaries” as the experience of being unable to consume “not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.”

Smith seems to speak directly to the issue of families who lack diapers and other basic needs beyond food and shelter.

What do you think?  Does the Federal Poverty Level adequately measure poverty?  Is the Supplemental Poverty Measure the appropriate measure?  Should we find another measure?

Consider helping those who cannot provide diapers for their family members with a donation to the National Diaper Bank Network.

The High Cost of Poverty–Diapering Edition

It costs a lot to be poor.  This is true in the city, as Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown explained in a detailed discussion of the costs that face low-income Washingtonians.  It’s also true it the country, as this Brookings Institute study of the costs borne by low-income Kentuckians reveals.  Not having money for those appliances and tools that we consider so nearly essential to daily life that we almost don’t think about them, such as a washing machine and a car, add a level of inconvenience that results in costs in time and often a premium for the less convenient substitute, not only for the item itself but for other elements of daily living.

For example, consider the effect not having a washing machine and a car would have on your ability to diaper your baby.

There is no question that cloth diapers, in the long run, are less expensive to use, but they have a lot of downsides.  For one thing, most child care programs do not accept cloth diapers, yet require parents to provide diapers for each day.  Even if child care is not a concern, without a washing machine and a car, cloth diapers are effectively out of the question for families in need.  In lieu of your own washing machine, you would have to bring the diapers (on average, 50 a week) and your children to the nearest laundromat, most likely on foot or on the bus.  For the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume that you able to carry the week’s work of diapers on foot or the bus driver does not refuse to take you on the bus to the laundromat with your load of dirty diapers and that you are able to do all this while carrying your baby and transporting any other children you might have.  Let’s also assume that once you are there the laundromat proprietor allows you to wash the diapers there (and many do not), you must pay somewhere between $1.00 and $2.50 for each load in the washer and dryer, and you generally have to stay there until the diapers are washed and dried, a process that can take a couple of hours or more.  That is time you cannot use to go to work, look for work, or engage  with your children at a location more stimulating than the laundromat.  For parents who work multiple jobs to make ends meet, it is time they cannot afford. There is also the question of soap to wash the diapers–soap cannot be bought with food stamps or WIC.

Although a lack of a washing machine does not effect the cost of disposable diapers, the lack of a car can make disposable diapers more expensive.  Without a car,  you cannot travel to the discount stores like BJ’s, Costco, and the like, where people with cars go to save money.  Even if you can get there on a bus, you would still be limited in your ability to buy and transport the very largest box of diapers, which provides the best price per diaper.  And then there is the fact that a larger box costs more, even though it results in a cheaper price per diapers.  If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you probably do not have the $25 to $50 for the economy and super economy sizes, and you likely do not have a credit card.  Instead, it is more likely that you are buying small packages of diapers at the local convenience store, where the price per diaper can be twice as much (if not more) than at the discount stores.

Even if you are in a position to receive government assistance, you won’t get any for diapers because there isn’t any.  Diapers cannot be bought with SNAP (formerly known as “Food Stamps”) or WIC.  Although unrestricted TANF grants could theoretically be used for diapers, such grants are virtually nonexistent.  So instead, you try to make your diapers last longer by leaving them on your child longer or trying to reuse old diapers that have dried, leading to diaper rash, dermatitis, and other health issues for your child, and a decrease in your self-esteem as a mother.

If you are poor, diapering your child costs much more than it does for a middle-class mom with a car and/or a washing machine, in terms of money, time, and physical and emotional well-being.  Diaper banks can help fill the gap, but they need support too.  Help us support and create diaper banks across the U.S.  Give generously to the National Diaper Bank Network, to your local diaper bank, or contact us to see how you can help start a diaper bank.

Postscript to Memorial Day Post

On Memorial Day, we wrote about the many great organizations that help our service men and women and their families who  tend to marry and start families younger than their civilian counterparts, and are often supporting those families while still very junior in rank, making wages that fall below the poverty level for a family of four.   (Read our original blog post here.) As we noted then, although the pay structure has improved in the last two decades, there is still a sizeable number of military families who receive food assistance, either from military’s Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance program or from private non-profit organizations such as Operation Homefront.

A recent Huffington Post article by Michael McAuliff suggests that the numbers of military members on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is even higher than we had originally thought, with as many as 1000 active duty military members receiving SNAP, and 150,000 households which also receive veterans’ benefits are relying on SNAP.  The SNAP and WIC rolls have expanded because of the economic crisis and the greater number of people at risk of food insecurity.  Inclusion of military families in their numbers reflects the changing nature of the military family.  The Senate has just approved a version of the Farm Bill that cuts SNAP benefits by $90 a month, and the House threatens to cut the program even more.  Religious institutions and other charitable institutions which help families in need are not positioned take up the slack without significant increases in their resources. Families having difficulty making ends meet may need even more help.  Give generously to your local diaper bank to help ease at least one need.

Chart of the day

Although diapers cannot be bought with food stamps or WIC, families that received cash assistance through TANF could use that money to buy diapers (provided there was any money left after buying other necessities). As the amount of unrestricted cash assistance diminishes, families no longer have discretion to use any TANF money they might get to buy diapers. Diaper banks are more critical than ever. Give generously to your local diaper bank. Contact us to find your local diaper bank or for help in starting a diaper bank near you. http://DiaperBankNetwork.org. Help us close the diaper gap!

occasional links & commentary

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (pdf),

Many policymakers continue to claim that the 1996 welfare reform law which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was a major success. They see the TANF program’s design and block grant structure as a model for the reform of other safety net programs.

TANF’s record over the last 15 years shows, however, that its role as a safety net has declined sharply over time. In 1996, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, TANF provided cash aid to 68 families. By 2010, it provided cash assistance to only 27 such families for every 100 in poverty. . .

The 1996 welfare law gave states broad flexibility over how to design their TANF programs and allocate state and federal TANF funds. This is one reason why the decline in TANF-to-poverty ratios was much more…

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Helping Babies Escape Poverty by Helping Parents Finish High School

A recent report issued by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy identifies a direct link between teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates.

In 2010, the latest data available, 367,752 infants were born to teenage mothers.  Although this number is a record low, the United States still has the largest number of teen pregnancies in the developed world.  The numbers vary by state, with Mississippi having the highest teen birthrate in the U.S.  (Mississippi is also the location of many of the people looking for diapers who call us.)

Teen-aged mothers face a huge number of obstacles in escaping poverty, and as a result, so do their children.  One of the greatest obstacles is the difficulty teen moms have in completing their high school education (not to mention any post-secondary education).  According to the National Campaign, only 40 % of teen mothers finish high school and less than 2% of teen mothers finish college by age 30.  Dropout rates are particularly high for Latinas students.

There are programs that help parents stay in school.  For example, the Elizabeth Celotto Day Care  at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, CT, provides high quality child care services to the children of students.  The program has dramatically improved the graduation rate for local teen moms.  The program is even more effective because it provides diapers for the children through a partnership with The Diaper Bank in North Haven, Connecticut.  Prior to the partnership, the child care center noticed that students were staying home from school when they did not have enough diapers for their children that day, often at the end of the month.  Since that the formation of the partnership with The Diaper Bank, student attendance, and graduation rates, have improved.

The potential for such partnerships between high school based programs and diaper banks exists across the country.  The Inland NW Baby Diaper Bank provides diapers to a local high school parenting program, as shown in this great documentary.  Partnerships like these are just one example of how diaper banks can provide a “bootstrap” to help lift teenage parents out of poverty.  Give generously to your local diaper bank, and help us ensure that there are diaper banks available everywhere to help parents finish their education and have the best opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Cities crack down on homeless: Could it be compassion fatigue? – USATODAY.com

Cities crack down on homeless: Could it be compassion fatigue? – USATODAY.com.

Today’s USA Today reports that cities are passing and enforcing ordinances that appear to target homelessness.  Advocates for the ordinances and their enforcement say that these laws help ensure that people living on the streets go to shelters where they can get more help.  Opponents say that the measures penalize people without the means to fight back.  What do you think–do ordinances against living on the street help people get into shelters, or do you think that they criminalize poverty?  Are we suffering from “compassion fatigue” as the economic downturn continues?

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