Back in 2017, single mom Megan Ohlinger gave birth to her second child, a girl. Since her baby was born prematurely and had complications, Ohlinger wasn’t able to work. Soon, she was struggling financially, and trying to make calculations that no mom should have to.
“Some months it would be between paying for the electric bill or paying for diapers,” Ohlinger told CBS News at the time.
Ohlinger’s story sounds shocking, but it’s alarmingly common. Even before the pandemic, one-third of American families with kids in diapers reported that they had trouble affording diapers. During the pandemic, when layoffs have disproportionately hit women, that number has likely gone up.
Now, it could get even worse, as diaper manufacturers announce price hikes. Last year the cost of diapers rose 8.7%, during a year when the income of many families fell, CNN Business reports. Facing increased costs in the supply chain, diaper manufacturers including Huggies, Pull-Ups, Pampers, Luvs and All Good diapers have announced that they’ll be raising prices even more this year.
Federal programs like WIC and SNAP (food stamps) are in place to help poor families afford proper nutrition. As a society, we’ve decided that it’s important that kids be properly nourished, despite their family’s economic circumstances.
And yet, no federal systems are in place to help families afford diapers, which are also critical for baby’s health during the first three years of life. Even as the nation considers expanding support for families, there’s little or no discussion about supporting families who can’t afford diapers — a seemingly simple solution that would make an immediate difference in the lives of thousands of the most vulnerable families.
Chelesa Presley, who works with poor families in Mississippi, has seen firsthand how not being able to afford diapers can affect a child’s health.
“I see parents not putting anything on their babies because they don’t have diapers,” she told The Washington Post in March. “I’ve seen people use shopping bags with some rags in it. I’ve seen T-shirts. I’ve seen people keeping the diapers on longer than necessary, and the diapers sag down when the babies walk.”
Presley is the founder and executive director of Diaper Bank of the Delta. Diaper banks collect donations and distribute diapers to people in need. In some locations that Diaper Bank of the Delta serves, demand for diapers has quadrupled during the pandemic as more families struggle to afford them. The National Diaper Bank Network has seen demand increase 86% during the pandemic.
In many places, people are beginning to move on from the pandemic. But the poorest Americans — those who are diaper insecure — are likely to continue to be hard-hit by the economic impacts of COVID.
“The people who lost their jobs first were retail and hospitality workers, which actually employs a lot of families that diaper banks serve and tend to be women,” Audrey Symes, a volunteer at Good+Foundation in New York, told The Washington Post.
That, coupled with the anticipated rise in cost of diapers, means that diaper banks might continue to be overwhelmed with demand.
“The families that we work with are going to be seeing the effects of this for five or six years,” said Corinne Cannon, who operates the Greater DC Diaper Bank in Washington, D.C.
Helping families afford diapers — a necessity for the first three years — would not only help keep infants and tots physically healthy. It would also help empower moms like Ohlinger, and protect their mental health.
“As a parent you think you can do all you can for your children, including providing for them everything they need and being able to provide enough diapers,” she said. “And when you can’t do that, you feel like you’ve failed as a parent.”
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