Your baby has a wet diaper. Crying. She expects to be changed. Wailing. You feel like you can’t change her yet because you’re running out of diapers and money. Screaming.
Excruciating moments like those haunt Alina Swart and thousands of other Washington parents raising children on very low incomes. Babies are supposed to be changed eight to 10 times each day, and diapers are expensive. Families spend up to $100 on disposable diapers each month, or $1,200 over a year.
“Your mom instinct says, ‘My baby needs to be changed.’ But you only have three diapers left and you’re not getting money for another three days,” recalled Swart, 41, who lives in Clarkston, Asotin County, and whose youngest child is 7 months old.
Since COVID-19 hit, economic hardships have exacerbated such challenges, spurring state lawmakers to consider several budget actions and bills that would help low-income families with babies, including an action that would send certain households with kids under 3 years old an $80 monthly “diaper stipend.”
That multi-million dollar budget line, pitched to the Legislature by a Seattle nonprofit that donates diapers for distribution to struggling households, has advanced with support from a “Moms Caucus” that Rep. Tana Senn and more than dozen other House Democrats created this year (dads were allowed to join, and five did).
Diapers are “just one more humongous stress,” alongside rent, groceries, utilities and all the work involved with caring for a baby, and there are wide-ranging consequences when families can’t afford diapers, said Swart, who has served on the steering committee for Gov. Jay Inslee’s Poverty Reduction Work Group. Dirty bottoms can lead to rashes and infections, and running out of diapers can cause parents to miss work, because many child care providers require parents to supply diapers.
“When I started in the Legislature (in 2013) I was one of the only women with kids in elementary school. Now we have a bunch of moms with young children,” said Senn, D-Mercer Island. “So many issues are resonating.”
Washington would be the second state in the country with a diaper stipend, following California’s lead by providing the additional cash to households receiving help through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, known to many simply as welfare.
The House has included the diaper stipend in its proposed budget, while in the Senate lawmakers have discussed the possibility that Washington could exempt diaper purchases by all or some buyers from sales tax.
Separately, there are proposals in the House and Senate budgets to increase TANF payments by 10% or 15%, across the board.
Unlike Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) payments, which must be spent on items such as groceries and baby formula, TANF can be used for a wider range of items, including diapers.
The proposals related to diapers and TANF are part of a push by lawmakers who believe Washington erred by slashing TANF and other social programs during the Great Recession. They want to adopt the opposite approach now, aided by rebounding revenues and federal bucks, said Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, whose family relied on TANF when he was growing up.
“We know a lot more than we did back then, and income inequality has gotten worse. This time, we want to reject the whole idea of austerity,” said Nguyen.
“Diaper need” grows
The problem Sarah Cody Roth calls “diaper need” is nothing new. WestSide Baby, the White Center-based “diaper bank” where Cody Roth serves as executive director, has for 20 years worked with food banks, schools, clinics, shelters and other partners to distribute diapers and other essentials.
More than one in five King County families with young children have had trouble paying for enough diapers at some point, including more than one in three Black and Hispanic households, according to survey data collected by the county before the pandemic. In 2019, WestSide Baby distributed 1.5 million diapers.
But the scale of the problem has grown since the virus disrupted the economy. When COVID-19 hit, causing many households to lose jobs, “we saw an immediate increase in demand,” Cody Roth said. TANF applications more than doubled in two months after the pandemic began, increasing 27% last year, according to state data.
Bolstered by extra donations, WestSide Baby dispatched 2.4 million diapers in 2020. WestSide Baby’s partners typically distribute the diapers in plastic zip lock bags of only a dozen or two dozen, in order to reach more people.
In the meantime, parents use various strategies to get by. They buy opened packs that have been marked down. They use duct tape when diapers break. Some let bills go unpaid. Others keep their children in wet diapers longer than they would otherwise, or save barely-wet diapers to reuse. Still others have their children crawl around at home without diapers on.
“I get the cheapest pack and I try to make that stretch,” said Yasmine Shorter-Ivory, 23, who lives in Kent with her husband and three children. “It’s really a headache and I’m a crier. When I get overwhelmed, I cry.”
Lekeyelsh Mulugeta occasionally gets diapers from Kent Youth and Family Services, which runs her older child’s preschool. When she doesn’t, her anxiety ratchets up.
Her only cash income is a $250 monthly unemployment check and her son runs through a $50 pack of diapers from Costco every two or three weeks. It’s upsetting because “I feel like I cannot do anything,” said Mulugeta, 34.
These days, Swart saves money by using cloth diapers; she now has a washing machine at home. But many people lack washing machines, and laundry services are expensive, while taking diapers to the laundromat isn’t a realistic option.
Diaper problems can attract attention from Child Protective Services, because child care providers are mandatory reporters,and diaper rash can be considered an indicator of neglect, noted Lianna Kressin, a social worker who leads the Statewide Poverty Action Network’s Basic Needs campaign. “Families are getting punished for being in poverty,” Kressin said.
When parents can’t supply diapers for child care, they can’t go to work, compounding their money woes and impeding their ambitions, added Tyiesha Rushing, Shorter-Ivory’s case manager at Atlantic Street Center in Seattle.
“There’s a bigger cause and effect than just a wet bottom,” Rushing said.
Lawmakers weigh proposals
Industries dominated by women were hit hardest when COVID-19 arrived, Senn pointed out. Shorter-Ivory and Mulugeta both lost jobs last year; they’re making sure their children receive love and care, despite monumental challenges.
Under Senn’s proposed budget action, households with small children that get payments through TANF and a similar program called State Family Assistance (SFA) would receive an extra $80 each month (California’s stipend is $30 monthly). They could spend the money on anything allowed under TANF, with the assumption that the extra cash would help cover diapers.
Swart, Shorter-Ivory and Mulugeta all have received TANF at one point or another, and all said the diaper stipend would have made life less difficult. Though TANF is supposed to help families make ends meet, the payments are inadequate on their own, anti-poverty advocates contend.
In Washington, a parent with two kids and no job receives about $569 monthly and must spend time each week in school or looking for work, Kressin said. When parents land jobs, their TANF payments are reduced to a benefit amount based on 50% of their new income. The amounts are the same no matter where in the state you live.
Relative to rent and other expenses, “TANF was nothing,” when Shorter-Ivory was using the program, she said.
Separate from the diaper stipend, the House’s proposed budget includes about $17 million in 2022 to boost TANF payments by 10% across the board, while the Senate’s version would increase the payments by 15%. Lawmakers are hashing out a joint budget this week.
Sexist and racist stereotypes about “welfare queens” abusing cash assistance have previously hindered such efforts. But the Legislature may be turning a corner, Kressin said, with diapers playing a role, partly because they’re ” harder to say ‘no’ to.”
Any TANF increase would help some of Washington’s lowest income households, though the impact would be limited by the program’s reach. There were only 29,998 families on TANF and SFA in February, and only 8,539 of those had kids under 3, partly because rules were tweaked during the Great Recession to make the benefits harder to qualify for and easier to lose.
Many more households struggle to pay for diapers, Swart, Shorter-Ivory and other advocates noted, like those that make slightly too much for TANF and those that previously hit the program’s 60-month lifetime limit. Many immigrants don’t qualify, and cash benefits can jeopardize green card applications, so Issa Ndiaye advises his clients at Seattle’s West African Community Council to steer clear. “So many undocumented families are not on TANF,” the executive director said.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, introduced a bill earlier this year that would exempt diapers from sales tax, which points to bipartisan interest.
“Why do we tax something that is not optional?” she asked in an email, arguing her bill would help many more people than a stipend.
The bill also would cost much more than the TANF proposals and is unlikely to be included in the budget, Nguyen said. But Nguyen, who signed onto the tax-break bill, has talked to colleagues about narrowing the tax break to nonprofits like diaper banks. That, too, could result in more diapers for parents like Shorter-Ivory, who regularly dips into her family’s savings jar.
“It’s supposed to be an ‘adventure fund’ for family vacations,” she said, wistfully. “But last night I needed Pull-Ups.’
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described how TANF payments are reduced when a recipient gets a job. The payments are not reduced by 50% of the recipient’s new income. They are reduced to a benefit amount based on 50% of their new income.