Living in a Diaper Desert

new study by Rice University researchers finds that children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be obese. The link between poverty and obesity has shown up in many studies. What’s different about this research is that the neighborhood itself, rather than the family’s economic status, is singled out. Author Justin Denney, a Rice sociologist, explains:

We know there are characteristics specific to families and individual children that are associated with obesity. Those relationships are pretty well understood at this point, but less well understood are community influences, such as the social and demographic characteristics of the places people live. Neighborhood poverty is associated with childhood obesity above and beyond the poverty status of the child’s family and other individual and family characteristics. This tells us there is something about the community that is also influencing childhood obesity.

In poor neighborhoods, residents pay higher prices for lower quality food. Here’s an interesting exercise: Go to Google Maps and type in the zip code of the poorest neighborhood in your area. Then use the “search nearby” function to look for supermarkets. You’ll find convenience stores, delis and so on. My guess is that you won’t find many places to buy broccoli. Certainly, you won’t see the kind of competition that spurs the supermarket price wars that can lead to great sales on products like chicken breasts and bags of apples in suburban neighborhoods. That’s why many urban areas are referred to as “food deserts.”

There are some admirable programs, such as urban farmer’s markets, under way to bring healthy food to poor neighborhoods. We also need to start thinking about “diaper deserts.”

Many parents buy their diapers at warehouse clubs, where they are most affordable. But to get that good deal, they need a car, a nearby warehouse club, money for the membership, space to store a case of diapers and enough cash (or credit) to be able to buy in bulk.

The next best deal on diapers is found in supermarkets. Again, parents need a few things to take advantage of supermarket prices: a car and/or a nearby supermarket and enough cash (or credit) to be able to buy in diapers in the packages generally sold in these markets.

Parents who have none of these resources buy their diapers in convenience stores within walking distance of their homes. The packages are small — sometimes as few as six in a box — and the per-diaper price is the highest of any option you’ll find.

People often say to me: Why don’t these families choose reusable cloth diapers? Because renters typically don’t have washing machines, and many laundromats don’t allow people to wash diapers. Even if a family is lucky enough to have a facility in their neighborhood where they can wash diapers, imagine the logistics. A pregnant mom was recently thrown off a city bus because the smell of her baby’s soiled diaper offended the driver. How would people react to a parent carrying a sack of dirty diapers? Add to that the difficulty of managing a child (or children) on public transportation.

So there you have it — a diaper desert. That’s why so many struggling families report choosing between paying the electric bill, buying food or purchasing enough diapers to change their babies whenever they are wet.

Much attention has been focused on changing food deserts for the sake of the nation’s health, as it should be. Let’s not forget, though, that good food is not the only thing a child needs. No community will be a healthy place for a child to grow up until all a baby’s basic needs are accessible and affordable.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was first published in the Huffington Post on November 15, 2012.

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Unnatural Disasters

When the Daily News sent truckloads of goods to Staten Island, it wasn’t the food and bottled water that got the most enthusiastic reception from residents battered by Hurricane Sandy.

“Thank God you guys had diapers, thank God theDaily News got diapers,” Salvatore Antonelli said as the News truck laden with the precious cargo arrived.

Antonelli said he and pal Regina Azzarelli have 11 grandchildren between them. And ever since Sandy struck last week, diapers have been in demand.

At the National Diaper Bank Network, we partnered with Huggies and the American Red Cross to get diapers to families hard-hit by the storm. We also got a call from an absolute angel of a man who is personally donating 20,000 diapers to children affected by the storm in New Jersey and New York. We were able to accept large donations and get diapers into disaster areas quickly thanks to our distribution partner, Kids in Distressed Situations. We were honored to be able to help babies in this time of need.

The generosity we’ve seen in the past week has been inspiring. The task of those of us who run non-profits is to find a better way to communicate need outside of these extraordinary events. Diapers, like food, water and housing, are a necessity. During a natural disaster like Sandy, we all recognize that.

But for many families, every day is a disaster where it’s a struggle to meet children’s basic needs. Yet the traditional safety net programs that benefit poor children, like WIC and Food Stamps, do not pay for diapers. Except in extreme circumstances, we don’t treat diapers like the necessities that they are.

One in three families struggles to provide diapers. As a result, babies are left in wet diapers and get rashes and infections. One in twenty moms reports emptying out soiled diapers and reusing them because she cannot afford to change her baby. Those are shocking statistics. Worse: They are unnecessary statistics.

The past week has shown what we can all do when we see people in need and then resolve to help. We need to translate that resolve into an ongoing commitment to reach out to families who are rocked by a layoff, an eviction or a hospital bill that’s more than a year’s pay. People face storms of many kinds. The question is: How committed are we to helping our neighbors weather them?

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This post appeared originally in The Huffington Post on November 9, 2012

Stress and the Cuddle Deficiency

Hugs are free. As a mother of three, I gave them away with abandon — until my kids reached the age where they made rules about public displays of affection. Can economic hardship get in the way of something as basic as a mother-child snuggle?

Nick Kristof had a great column about ways that parents can help kids succeed, even while growing up in poverty. He cites a series of studies that show kids of affectionate, supportive parents do better in school and in life.

As I said, hugs are free. But a dad who just rode three buses to put in a job application, only to be told the position is filled, might not be in a cuddly mood. A mother suffering with a toothache because she can’t afford to go to the dentist is less likely to take a child in her lap and read aloud. As Kristof explains:

Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force.

There was also an NIH report released in August arguing that the stress of poverty affects kids’ ability to learn:

The stresses of poverty — such as crowded conditions, financial worry, and lack of adequate child care — lead to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds, according to a theory by a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health. The theory is based on several years of studies matching stress hormone levels to behavioral and school readiness test results in young children from impoverished backgrounds.

It comes as no surprise that it’s stressful to be poor. What most of us don’t realize is how that stress pervades every area of a family’s life together. Most parents want to do what’s best for their kids. But the more stress a family is under, the harder it is to be a model parent all the time. Make no mistake: Many low-income parents do an outstanding job. But they to did it while coping with calls from creditors, winter jackets that have grown too small and neighborhoods where there’s no safe place to play.

There’s a school of thought that we should help the poor — but not too much. We fear that too much support will create dependency. A friend who worked in a soup kitchen was amazed at how often people would ask, “Do you think the people who eat there really need it?” She always answered, “Oh, not at all. They come for the ambiance.”

We want to cut low-income families off any kind of public assistance as quickly as possible, whether they’re in a job that will allow them to pay for good daycare or not. We want to make sure there’s no television in that subsidized apartment, even though entertainment is at a premium when the playground is unsafe and a trip to the movies is an unthinkable luxury. We don’t want them to starve, but we don’t want things to be too easy. At some level, our policies feed this chronic stress.

We love rags-to-riches stories of people who grew up in poverty and achieved great things. These stories are so compelling because they are the exception, not the rule. What social workers have known forever is now backed up by science: The extreme stress of growing up in poverty can put a kid on track for a lifetime of poverty.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen firsthand how simply providing clean diapers for low-income families comes as a huge relief to parents. There are a thousand “little things” that can trip up a poor family. The weight of all those little things can get in the way of what more fortunate families take for granted: rolling around in a leaf pile together, giggling over cups of cocoa on a snow day, a big hug after blowing out all the candles. These are little things, too, but they have an enormous effect that can last a lifetime.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was first published in The Huffington Post, on November 2. 2012.

National Diaper Need Awareness Week

This year, the National Diaper Bank Network is recognizing the week of September 10-17 as National Diaper Need Awareness Week, and local diaper banks across the country have asked their state and local officials to do the same. But more than merely declaring a week, we are acknowledging that the country is becoming more and more aware of the fact that diapers are a basic need for infants, toddlers, and those who suffer from incontinence, and that more people are willing to do something about it.

We have come very far in bringing attention to diaper need in the eight years since I began this journey in 2004. When I started The Diaper Bank in New Haven, CT there were very few diaper banks in America, so I looked to the example of the Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona, the nation’s first diaper bank. That program began in 1994 when a small consulting firm in Tucson, Arizona held a diaper drive during the holiday season to assist a local crisis nursery. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, and seeing the great need in their community, the firm made the December Diaper Drive an annual tradition, and within five years they were collecting 300,000 diapers each December, benefiting families at 30 local social service agencies. In 2000, the diaper drive effort was spun off into an independent non-profit organization, the Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona, which continues to provide desperately needed diapers to the people of southern Arizona.

The Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona served as my inspiration in 2004 when I decided to start a diaper bank. Through my work with families in need New Haven, I learned that many of the hygiene products I took for granted, such as toilet paper, toothpaste, and diapers, were not available to people who had only food stamps to buy their groceries. The need for diapers, which are so critical for a baby’s health and comfort, was particularly acute. I started small, working out of my living room, but in a few years time, with the help of many others, what started as The New Haven Diaper Bank (now, The Diaper Bank) has grown into the nation’s largest diaper bank, distributing over 14 million diapers since its inception.

The success of these diaper banks and others inspired similar efforts throughout the country. As awareness of the problem of diaper need grew, small but passionate groups of people responded by founding diaper banks in their communities as independent organizations, through their churches, and as part of the work of existing relief agencies. There are now over 150 diaper banks in America. Many of these organizations are quite small, but the difference they make is unmistakable. Still, however, the need for diapers far outstrips their ability to satisfy it.

There are 5.7 million babies and toddlers living in low-income families who may struggle to provide diapers for their children. These children are at greater risk for severe diaper rash, dermatitis, and other health problems. For their families, a baby crying because of a wet diaper that cannot be changed adds to the stress on parents struggling to make ends meet.

The purpose of Diaper Need Awareness Week is to recognize that there are people in the United States who struggle to provide clean, dry diapers for their children, and to celebrate the fact that there are organizations like diaper banks that can help people obtain the diapers they need.

It is also to recognize the tremendous strides already made in raising awareness of the need. I recently checked the number of mentions of “diaper banks” on webpages using Google, and the amount of web activity for diaper banks by year has increased dramatically. In 2004, when I first started my diaper bank, there were only 94 mentions of “diaper bank” on webpages for the whole year. In the first eight months of this year alone, that number has increased nearly two orders of magnitude to 7800. I expect that by the end of Diaper Need Awareness Week, that number will increase even more.

Across the country, there will be diaper-need focused events that week, including local area diaper drives, discussion panels on why diapers matter, fundraising events, op-eds in their local newspapers, and proclamations by governors and mayors declaring the week “Diaper Need Awareness Week.”

We at NDBN are starting the week with a bang, holding our first ever Diaper Bank Conference in Washington, DC, where forty diaper bank leaders will gather to learn more about how to make their efforts go farther. We hope by holding the conference in Washington, that we can demonstrate that grassroots charitable action can effect change in our country, and address a need experienced in places as diverse as Chattanooga, Tennessee and Santa Monica, California, and Lewisville, North Carolina and Seattle, Washington.

Why should this matter to you? Because this group of people are working together to change their communities, their states and their country by coming together to support people in need. The more activities there are around Diaper Need Awareness Week the more people will learn about the significance of this issue.

Please consider holding a diaper drive, hosting an event, donating to you local diaper bank or donating to the National Diaper Bank Network.

 — originally published in the Huffington Post, August 22, 2012.

Is It Luck?

I received an e-mail the other day that broke my heart. The young woman wrote that she cared for three children in diapers, one of whom was the niece her sister couldn’t take care of anymore. This woman did not work because daycare for three children cost more than she made. This arrangement worked while her fiancé was working, but he had recently, unexpectedly, lost his job. And now they couldn’t pay for diapers.

The young lady who sent me that e-mail describes both luck and choices. She and her fiancé were doing well enough that they chose to take in her niece so she could keep her niece from entering the child welfare system. That shows generosity — she was lucky enough to be able to help someone else. Then bad luck hit. Her fiancé, who had a good job, was laid off. Now she has three children under three years old, all in diapers. She thought she had made good choices and that she and her family were financially set. Turned out bad luck got in the way.

The trajectory of our lives is determined by a series of choices and luck, but it seems to me that many people discount how big a role luck plays. From the perspective of a baby, the family the baby is born into is a matter of luck. The child has no choice in this matter, and has done nothing one way or another to deserve one family more or less than the other. The child’s only action to this point is being born. As a studyreleased by the Urban Institute found, children born into wealth tend to live life as wealthier adults.

Children born into poverty are more likely to live in poverty as adults than people who were not born into poverty. Among children who are never poor, only 1 percent spent half their early adult years living in poverty. On the other hand, 32 percent of persistently poor children go on to spend half their early adult years living in poverty.

Sometimes this luck translates into an ability to make choices. For example, according to the Social Science Research Council, if you were lucky enough to be born to educated parents, you are more likely to pursue a college degree.

Children whose parents have at least a college degree enter college at more than twice the rate of children whose parents did not graduate high school.

Although pursuing a college degree involves making a choice, it also involves luck. If there are simply too many obstacles — the cost of tuition is prohibitive, you can’t afford to pay the application fee or the fee to take the college board exams, or your family cannot afford for you to quit your afterschool job — you will in effect not have the opportunity to make the choice.

Our lives are certainly shaped by our innate qualities as human beings — raw intelligence, mechanical aptitude, the ability to relate to others, and so on — but our ability to capitalize on those qualities depends in large part on luck. Were you lucky enough to have a stable family life that allowed you to focus on schoolwork and training to perfect these qualities? Were you lucky enough to have the opportunity to exercise these qualities and turn them into an asset for future earnings or opportunities?

Your ability to rebound from these turns of luck also depends on luck — how much good or bad luck you had before. Maybe you can recover from one unlucky break, for example, you get laid off, but can you recover from several unlucky breaks? You lose your job, your neighbor has a fire in their apartment so you must evacuate and then someone rear ends your car in an accident — can you recover from all of that at once?

People living paycheck-to-paycheck might have the cushion necessary to sustain a little bit of bad luck. But a long run of bad luck probably not. Indeed, unless you are really lucky most of us don’t have the resources to carry us through a really long run of bad luck. And bad luck tends to beget more bad luck. You don’t have enough money for gas, so you have to rely on the bus, which is late, so you miss the big interview. You do not have enough money to buy diapers so you cannot bring your child to daycare so you lose a day’s wage. You literally cannot afford to work.

It is both luck and choices in my life that have allowed me to be in a position to help the young lady I described above find diapers. But what if I were less lucky? Would I be asking for diapers now? And would someone luckier than me choose to help?

In my life I have met many people who have had a lot of luck — good and bad and made lots of choices — both good and bad. My point is, regardless of your situation in life — both luck and choices play a role. We should all keep that in mind as we judge those around us.

America’s Poverty Rate Increases

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1...

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2009. United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The news report is so disturbing that it has already been reprinted in multiple publications and on any number of social media feeds.  It also invokes many possible responses—dismay that more people living in poverty; concern that that our safety net is crumbling; alarm that children will be poorer than their parents; and distress over what the future of our nation will be as a result.

Those are not my immediate responses.  I think about the day-to-day reality of being poor.  One recent evening,  I was at Wal-Mart with my husband and my 14-year-old son.   My son needed something for school the next day, but had forgotten to tell us until that evening so we ran to Wal-Mart to get it.  In front of us in the checkout line was an older man buying food. He had Vienna sausage, Spam, day-old white bread, and canned beans.  Nothing in his basket needed to be cooked, and nothing cost more than a dollar.

Because of my years working as a social worker I knew that this man must live somewhere that did not have a stove or microwave.  He could have a room at an SRO, he could be at a shelter, or he could live on the streets.  As we left, I saw him get on his bicycle with his bag. The bicycle was old and had no headlight. It was late, and the Wal-Mart was on a highway—not the sort of location you would want to be riding an old bike without a headlight if you had a choice.  I could only feel sad.

The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions.

It’s very easy to look at this numbers and think only in abstract terms.  But I prefer to think in concrete terms—what do those figures mean when considering what someone needs to live?  The poverty level presumes a family of four can live on less than $22, 314 a year, but how?  Let’s assume rent is low—say $500 a month (and I don’t know anywhere a family of four can find a place for that)—rent alone has already taken up more than a quarter of the year’s money.  And that rent may not include utilities like gas, electric and water—let’s add another $200 a month for that.  Have we talked about transportation?  A car with gas, insurance and maintenance can take a significant portion of the remainder, but even public transportation such as buses and subways require money—travel is not free.  What else is essential?  Food, clothes, insurance, insurance co-pays, over the counter medication (insurance does not pay for aspirin or Benadryl) child care, not to mention cleaning supplies and hygiene products.  Even if a family receives some assistance from the government, that assistance is minimal and limited to food, rent subsidy, or small amounts of cash that usually comes tied to conditions such as work or training programs.

The truth is that it is possible to work full time and still fall under the poverty line.  Indeed, $22,314 a year is equivalent to working full time (40 hours a week, for 52 weeks) for $10.73 an hour, well above the minimum wage in most states.  And it is not the isolated case where working people make that little.  The median wage in the US in 2010 was only $26,364, only $4,050 more than the poverty rate for a family of four.  That means half of all U.S. workers made wages less than that.  It is possible that many live in households where other people work, or that they have taken second or third jobs, but it is still a sobering statistic when the numbers are translated into basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

There are many who say the Federal Poverty Level does not accurately measure poverty (see our blog post about it here).   Many have advocated measuring poverty in terms of basic needs.  The National Center for Children in Poverty has a Basic Needs Calculator, which evaluates how much it really costs to live in a given state and city (or county).  In most places, it costs almost twice the federal poverty level to make ends meet for a family of four.  That is without any extras, no books, no trips to the library, no picnics in the park.

We have talked before about how much more expensive it is to do basic things, like diapering your baby, if you don’t have much money.  And we have also talked about the disadvantages people without money face in getting a good education or otherwise breaking free from the cycle of poverty.  We talk about these things because these are the concrete realities of poverty.  The numbers are disturbing in the abstract, but when you bring them to a personal level, like the man shopping in Wal-Mart, they are downright heartbreaking.

The High Cost of Poverty–Education Edition

The effect of being poor is more than not being able to buy things.  It fundamentally affects how you are able to function in life.  This is particularly true for students in poor families, who often come to school hungry, without enough sleep, and without having done their homework because they lack the supplies and the space necessary to do it.  As Brock Cohen, a teacher in the Los Angeles County Unified District writes in a blog for the Washington Post,

What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.

And students in low-income districts are often taught by inexperienced teachers who are paid less well than their counterparts in more affluent districts.  Because most educational districts are funded on the local level, the property taxes in a given district have a great deal to do with how much the district has to spend on the school and the students who attend it.  So students in poor families, most often living in poor neighborhoods, get shortchanged, not only by their family’s debilitating economic situation, but also by school districts without the means to make up the difference.   Cohen notes, they become “apartheid” schools, where testing is substituted for learning.

Education expert Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University has observed that the U.S.’s famously poor showing in educational achievement among the world’s industrialized nations is directly attributable to the U.S.’s increased population of poor children.

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns.

In high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, strong social safety nets ensure that virtually all schools have fewer than 10 percent of their students living in poverty. Although the poverty-test score association is similar across 14 wealthy nations (with the average scores of the poorest 5 percent of students just over half those of their wealthiest peers), our poverty rate for children is much higher than others: 22 percent of all U.S. children and 25 percent of young children live in poverty.

The link between poverty and low academic achievement is well documented.  So if we are counting on education as the primary means for helping poor children escape poverty, but do not address the poverty that robs children of their ability to obtain academic success, we have simply turned public schools into the scapegoats for erosion of the American dream, and abandoned our future in the process.

Why are we writing about this?  Because diapers (and other hygiene products) are part of the long list of things people who don’t have enough money cannot buy.  Why do diapers matter?  Because people ( young and old)  must have their basic needs met and cannot develop optimally without that.  As we observed in June, the EU measures child deprivation by measuring children’s access to items that go beyond the bare minimum to sustain life, but include modest comforts that improve the quality of life.  As we said then, if children are our nation’s future, shouldn’t we give them not just the bare minimum to survive, but the basics they need to thrive?   Without these things, we are impoverishing not only our children’s opportunity to grow but also our nation’s future.

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