Diapers Are A Basic Need

A national movement that began in New Haven is working define diapers as a basic human need that should be subsidized for low-income families.

When families with infants cannot afford diapers, not only is the health and wellbing of children at risk. The scarcity also takes a toll on the mental health of mothers and caregivers. Yet there is no public assistance to help families meet this need.

A national movement that has roots in New Haven is working to repair this hole in the safety net by providing diaper assistance and expanding society's definition of "basic human needs."

The National Diaper Bank Network, headquartered in New Haven, began in 2010 and now distributes more than 45 million diapers annually to more than 300 community-based diaper banks around the country. It is also the leading advocate for including diapers in antipoverty programs.

The Numbers

  • 37% of children in Greater New Haven ages 0-5 live in low-income households, which is less than $47,000 for a family of four1.
  • Diapers can cost $70-$80 per month for one baby2.
  • One in three U.S. mothers report suffering from a diaper need3.
  • Diaper costs represent more than 12% of the income of Connecticut recipients of TANF, The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)4.

No Government Assistance for Diapers

Diapers cost an average of $18 per week5, which represents more than 6 percent of a minimum-wage paycheck. They are not covered under the two main antipoverty programs that assist familes: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program, which provides nutritional supplements for pregnant women and young children.

Federal law classifies diapers with cigarettes, alcohol, and pet food as items that cannot be purchased with assistance vouchers. And while diapers are necessary for health, Medicaid does not pay for them either. The federal health insurance program only covers illnesses. Incontinence in babies is not a health issue. It's normal.

A New Haven Beginning

In 2004, Joanne Goldblum was a social worker with the Yale Child Study Center's Family Support Services. During home visits, she repeatedly encountered mothers who could not afford diapers.

"What I saw over and over again was a level of poverty that my clinical skills couldn't address. I saw children in a diaper all day long. I saw mothers emptying the solids out and putting the diapers back on," Goldblum says. "I couldn't believe that a half mile from my house that there was this was going on. I had to do something."

Goldblum took action by starting the New Haven Diaper Bank in her living room. Before long, she was distributing 5,000 diapers a month to five nonprofit agencies working with low-income families.

With support from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven the Diaper Bank continued to grow. Within three years, the volume had mushroomed to a million diapers a year and Goldblum had to move operations to a warehouse. By 2008, Goldblum was receiving national media attention with profiles in Time and People Magazine, and was a "Person of the Week" on ABC News.

Joanne Goldblum Discusses What Children Need

The New Haven Diaper Bank has since expanded to distribute 20 million diapers annually to 60 community partners around the state. Partners are typically places where families are accessing other basic needs or services.

In addition to causing a lack of hygiene, a lack of diapers also impacts a mother or caregiver's ability to return to work. Babies are not allowed in most childcare care centers without a supply of diapers, which means that they lose out on early childhood education opportunities and their mothers cannot get a job.

"We're asking moms to go back to work. But that won't happen if they don't have enough diapers," says New Haven Diaper Bank Executive Director Janet Stolfi Alfano. "We don't have any state or federal money for this basic need that cannot be made up by private generosity alone."

A National Focus

In 2010, Goldblum left the New Haven Diaper Bank to form the National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN) along with the founders of diaper banks in Seattle, Tuscon, and McHenry Illinois and representatives from Huggies. In addition to creating a bulk distribution system with national reach, the network is leading a national conversation about changing the definition of basic human needs to include diapers and other hygiene products that protect the spread of illness and disease.

The NDBN's strategy involves working with local diaper banks to advocate and raise awareness of the issues within each state. In Connecticut, this advocacy resulted in a break on the sales tax for diapers and feminine hygiene products that takes effect in 2018.

In early 2014, the diaper bank movement picked up momentum in with the national media coverage of a Yale study published in Pediatrics: "Diaper Need and Its Impact on Child Health."

A survey of low-income Black and Hispanic mothers in New Haven found that nearly one third experienced diaper need. In addition to the association of physical health problems of dermatitis and urinary tract infections in children with infrequent diaper changes, the study established a link between diaper need and depression in the mothers. Children raised by parents under high levels of stress or depression are likely to act out with behavioral and emotional problems.

"We systematically interviewed parents about their needs and a number of mothers talked about diapers as their main obstacle," said Megan Smith, the study's lead author and a principal investigator with the Mental Health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS) Partnership. "It was higher than food."

What the Community Foundation is Doing

The Community Foundation and its donors have supported the Diaper Bank for nearly a decade, and the Diaper Bank's recent Basic Needs Policy Project received funding from The Community Fund for Women and Girls.

The Community Foundation is also the home of New Haven Healthy Start, which has been supporting infant and maternal health since 1997.

The Community Foundation also supports the New Haven Mental Health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS) Partnership, a community-academic partnership consisting of All Our Kin, Clifford Beers Clinic, New Haven Health Department, New Haven Housing Authority, New Haven Healthy Start, The Diaper Bank, The State of Connecticut Department of Children and Families and Yale School of Medicine. The collaborative is establishing hubs in New Haven neighborhoods to deliver centralized mental health, family economic security, and basic needs services and provides Community Ambassadors who are trained to engage the hardest to reach families.

Works Cited

  1. The Community Progress Report: Measuring the Wellbeing of Greater New Haven. The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. New Haven, Ct. 2016. 5.
  2. The National Diaper Bank Network
  3. ibid
  4. The National Diaper Bank Network
  5. Smith, Megan V. et. Al., "Diaper Need and Its Impact on Child Health," Pediatrics, July 29, 2013.

© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
June 2016