Earlier this week, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill aimed at making diapers affordable. H.R. 4055, or the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act of 2015, will allow states to create pilot projects that provide diapers or subsidies for diapers to poor families.
Currently, families are unable to use money from nutrition programs (such as food stamps or WIC) to pay for diapers, and those receiving benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) often find that they also need to choose between diapers and other necessities. Community “diaper banks” work to distribute diapers to those who need them, but they can only satisfy a portion of the need.
The National Diaper Bank Network estimates that a third of families have a need for more diapers. They can be very costly, and infants can use up to 240 of them per month, with an average annual cost of around a thousand dollars. The poor are also less likely to be able to shop around for the least expensive diapers or to be able to buy them in bulk, which can also reduce the per-diaper cost.
Those who are unable to afford an adequate supply of diapers will wash and reuse soiled diapers. This inappropriate reuse of diapers and an inadequate supply in general can lead to health problems for caregivers and children: urinary tract and other infections for the child, and mental health problems for the caregivers who struggle to keep children healthy.
The struggle to provide enough diapers is apparent from data showing how much Americans spend on them per year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Diary Survey tracks household (called “consumer unit”) expenditures on a weekly basis by various demographic characteristics. The figure below shows average expenditures on diapers (“infant underwear”) by income quintile from 2004 to 2014, as a percentage of average after-tax income. (This analysis is for only those households that spent money on diapers.)
The results are striking. The poorest quintile (the bottom 20 percent of consumer units by income, with an average after-tax income of $11,253) spent 13.9 percent of their income on diapers in 2014. For the years 2004 to 2014, this quintile spent a far larger share of their income on diapers than any of the other quintiles, roughly 2 to 2.75 times greater than the next poorest quintile.
The next poorest quintile (average after-tax income of $29,012) spent 5.0 percent of their income on diapers — still a significant amount. This is almost double the share of the next highest quintile. In contrast, with an average income of $166,061 in 2014, the richest quintile spent just 1.0 percent of their income on diapers.
It’s clear that the cost of diapers disproportionately hurt the poor. While many in the bottom two quintiles are helped by social programs, the necessity of diapers, the frequency of their use, and their high costs, add up to a significant burden for these households.
Addendum: The BLS's "infant underwear" expenditure category is assumed to count as expenditures for diapers for the purposes of this analysis (see notes on the graph). There is no distinction made between disposable or reusable diapers, although disposable diaper use is prevalent and the data likely reflects that.
It is important to also note that some consumer units may be in the bottom income quintile only temporarily, for example if income-earners left their jobs to care for a child or children. In such cases, spending on diapers or other items may be high relative to their income temporarily, but would be lower when considered over a longer period. This doesn't change the fact that the costs may impose a hardship in years when their income is low.