Start Early to Close the Achievement Gap

By age 3, children in low-income families have smaller vocabularies than middle-class kids of the same age. This “achievement gap” persists throughout school and culminates in lower graduation rates for children growing up in poverty. I’m not offering a magic bullet to close the achievement gap. Complex problems, unfortunately, tend to require complex solutions. But I can think of two key elements to any effort to address the gap: We need to start early and we need to think broadly.

Remember, we’re seeing language deficits by age 3. We also know that those first three years are spent forming trillions of synapses — 90 percent of the brain development we’ll experience in our lifetimes. So the question is: Can a baby living in poverty have the rich experiences that encourage healthy development? We know that great early childhood education helps. Kids who participate in early childhood education are more likely to graduate high school and 2.5 times more likely go on to higher education.

People in my line of work are fond of referring to social programs as “investments.” It’s hard to think of any area were the term is more apt than early childhood. Kids in good early childhood programs achieve higher, contribute more in taxes and require less in public services. One study found that the return on investment in early childhood education is $17 for every $1 spent.

As I said, we need to think broadly and deliver services to poor families where and how they need them. For example, my community reserved some spots in high quality early childhood programs for low-income families, but we found the families that needed them most didn’t know about the program. So we used non-traditional marketing, like lawn signs, to get the word out.

Once families knew about the slots, there were still needs to be met. Most child care programs require parents to supply disposable diapers for their children. The neediest families simply couldn’t afford them. It took an entire non-profit organization to address that.

Hats off to the community in Lafayette, La., that is crafting a broad-based strategy to close the achievement gap, including:

… the creation of health and wellness teams (to) help address issues as they happen, rather than just letting students move through the school system without any intervention.

I believe Lafayette is able to be smart about boosting achievement, because it isn’t getting stuck in the “blame the victim” trap that so often accompanies discussions about poverty. In an interview with The Advertiser, United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan said: “The stereotype that poor parents don’t care, I know, is a myth.” The Advertiser reports, “She said many parents in poverty struggle with multiple jobs, odd shifts, problems getting adequate childcare and a lack of reliable transportation.”

Every family faces challenges. In poor communities, those challenges form a long and daunting list. If we want kids of all income levels to succeed, we need to find ways to scratch things off that list.

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

 

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on November 27, 2012.

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Guardian Angels

Our Administrative Associate, Jane, has fielded many of the calls we get from individuals looking for diapers.  As a resource for diaper banks and those wanting to start diaper banks, our primary communications is generally with diaper banks rather than individuals, but since we first activated our website, we have received calls and emails from individuals from all over the country desperate for diapers.  The calls are often heartbreaking: from mothers who recently lost their jobs and are trying to figure out how they will care for a sick baby; grandmothers wanting to find a way to help fill a need for an unemployed son and his growing family; homeless shelters for women transitioning from substance abuse programs or incarceration–because the need is great everywhere, the list goes on and on.

But, more often than not, Jane has been able to connect these callers with a diaper bank or an agency that can provide at least some temporary help to these folks.  Jane credits “Guardian Angels” she has discovered in the process of working here.  And these guardian angels exist all over the country, willing to take action to make a difference in the lives of other people.  They may take different forms–a sympathetic administrator at a food bank, a director of a women’s shelter, or a generous mom with the time and willingness to create a mobile diaper bank–but they are all the people that make our goal of ensuring that all children have the clean diapers they need a realistic possibility instead of an impossible dream.

We want to thank the Guardian Angels we have met thus far, and those we have yet to meet (but we know are out there) for helping us create a network of committed individuals and organizations dedicated to closing the diaper gap.

Why Diapers? Some Facts That Might Surprise You

Diapers are a basic need for children in the United States, as essential to their health and well-being as food, shelter and a parent’s love.  Unlike other necessities such as food and heat, diapers are not recognized as a basic need by the federal government, and so no provision is made to help families acquire diapers.  Federal anti-poverty programs such as Food Stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) do not cover diapers, leaving poor families without the means to properly diaper their children.

 

Families from a range of incomes struggle to afford diapers, including both families who fall below the federal guideline of poverty ($22,350 for a family of four) and families with incomes above the federal poverty guideline but who are still considered low-income.  Research suggests that families earning twice the federal poverty guideline still struggle to meet their basic needs, making the poverty level figures cited in this plan a very conservative estimate of the universe of people struggling to meet their diaper needs.

 

Families unable to afford diapers are forced to choose between a range of undesirable alternatives that can severely impact the health and well-being of both the child and the rest of the household.  According to a study by Ravers and Letourneau, 34% of families surveyed had cut back on basics such as food, utilities or child care in order to purchase diapers for their children.[1]  Other families reported leaving their children in soiled diapers for a longer period of time than they otherwise would have.  Some families even resort to cleaning out or drying soiled diapers and reusing them in order to meet their diaper needs.

 

The lack of diapers also limits families’ child care options.  Most licensed child care programs do not accept children who are not sent with an adequate supply of disposable diapers and do not accept alternatives such as cloth diapers.  When parents run out of diapers, they are forced to withdraw their children from child care, hindering their ability to work or attend school.

 

Twenty-two percent of all children under five years of age in the United States live in poverty, ranging as high as 34% in Mississippi to 12% in Maryland.[2]  In the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, as many as 57% of children under five live in poverty.  This poverty is most pronounced in households headed by single mothers, where 54% of children under five live in poverty, compared to only 27% of children under of five in single father households and 10% of children under five in households with two married parents.[3]

 

In absolute terms, 4.4 million children under five live in poverty[4], of which roughly 2.6 million are children who wear diapers (0-36 months).  At a rate of six diapers per day per child, diaper wearing children in poverty in the United States require more than 5.8 billion diapers annually to keep them clean, dry and healthy.


An inadequate supply of diapers can have severe repercussions for the health and economic and emotional well-being of the child, parent and rest of the household.  Most immediately, an inadequate supply of diapers forces many parents to leave their child in a soiled diaper longer than is appropriate, which frequently leads to diaper rash, and may cause staph infections and urinary tract infections.  Uncomfortable babies also experience irritability, prolonged crying and poor sleep.  These consequences, in turn, erode mother-child attachment and may lead to lower levels of self-esteem and even depression for parents who are not able to provide the diapers their children need.  In many cases, these outcomes result in neglect[5] and abuse of the child.

 

The inability to enroll children in child care due to lack of diapers threatens parents’ economic and educational opportunities.  Without proper child care, parents cannot work to support their families and cannot attend the schooling that will help them provide a firmer economic base for their family.

 

Moreover, the unplanned removal of the child from child care when diapers run out may itself cause harm to the child’s well-being.  Adams and Rohacek report that instability in child care arrangements has been linked to a range of negative outcomes in children, including problems with relationship attachment, social competence, behavior, cognitive ability, language development, school adjustment and overall well-being.[6]

 

In cases where parents cut back on other expenses to afford diapers, families suffer due to a lack of other necessities.  Cutting back on clothing, heat or prescription drugs can negatively affect family members’ health and emotional well-being.


[1] Ibid.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2005-2009.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Laura Frame, Parent-Child Relationships in Conditions of Urban Poverty: Protection, Care, and Neglect of Infants and Toddlers, Center for Social Service Research, School of Social Work, U.C. Berkeley, 2001, p.4.

[6] Gina Adams and Monica Rohacek, Child Care Instability: Definitions, Context, and Policy Implications, Urban Institute, 2010, p.6.

The National Diaper Bank Network is Open for Business

Over the last fifteen years, diaper banks have been popping up all over the country to provide diapers to families in need, but before now there was no national resource for people starting or looking for diaper banks.  Enter the National Diaper Bank Network, which, thanks to the help of our Founding Sponsor, Huggies® Every Little Bottom, has been established to help existing diaper banks grow and to help people start new diaper banks.   We’ve only been open for business for about a month, but we have already heard from diaper banks across the country and from many of you who want to start a diaper bank.   We’ve also received calls from giving folks like Bob in Weymouth, Massachusetts who, after surviving brain surgery, decided to use his disposable income to provide diapers to a local child advocacy program.

As someone reading this blog, you probably already know that there are families who cannot afford diapers for their children.  Diapers cannot be bought with food stamps or WIC vouchers, and they are expensive, costing as much as $100 a month.  Many people are unaware of the difficulties some families face with diapers.  This difficulty, which we call “diaper need,” can limit a family’s ability to achieve financial stability because a lack of diapers means parents cannot leave their children at childcare and go to work.   It can also subject a child to bladder infection, dermatitis, and other health problems that result from staying in a dirty diaper too long.  It can also increase a child’s chances for abuse, because a child in a dirty diaper is more likely to cry for longer period, and infant crying has been linked to child abuse.

Diaper banks help alleviate diaper need not only by providing diapers to families in need, but also by raising awareness of the problem.  In order to fix a problem, people have to know that the problem exists.  We’re here to help spread the word about diaper need, which in turn will help diaper banks raise funds and community support.  We’re also here to help people who want to start diaper banks in their communities.  We recently held our first webinar on starting a diaper bank, which is posted on our website.

We’re getting great responses to our initial efforts and look forward to hearing from more of you.  Check this blog, our website and Facebook page for upcoming webinars and tools for diaper banks, and let us know about your efforts to raise awareness and combat diaper need in your communities.   Thank you for all that you do!

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