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.

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