Bill would allow families to use public assistance to buy diapers

One in three families struggles with diaper need, advocates say

By: - March 18, 2022 6:48 am

(New Jersey Monitor)

Parents would be able to use their public assistance benefits to buy diapers under a bill several Democratic state lawmakers introduced earlier this month to offset an essential expense they say can keep working-class families trapped in poverty.

Assemblywomen Shanique Speight (D-Essex), Mila Jasey (D-Essex), and Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) sponsored the bill, which is now before the Assembly Human Services Committee. It’s one of numerous measures introduced recently aimed at making diapers more accessible for New Jersey parents.

“The cost of diapers has been a financial burden on working- and middle-class families for years, and the upsurge in the cost of diapers has made this even more difficult to afford,” Speight said. “Depending on a household’s size and a family’s needs, a mother could be spending upwards of $100 a month for diapers. The inability to afford diapers can add additional stressors in the lives of parents, specifically those making below the federal poverty guidelines.”

Babies need up to 12 diapers a day, and one in three families struggle with diaper need, according to the National Diaper Bank Network. Diaper need worsened during the pandemic because more families struggled financially and diaper-makers hiked prices in response to supply-chain problems and worker shortages.

Yet government safety-net programs don’t consider diapers a basic need, classifying them with cigarettes, alcohol, and pet food as disallowed purchases under food stamp programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Speight’s bill would require the state Commissioner of Human Services to apply for waivers from the federal government to allow diaper purchases with public assistance dollars.

Carol Harris is the coordinator of the Our Lady of Sorrows food pantry at the Mary House in Jersey City, where diapers are always in demand. She cheered the bill, saying it should help families forced to make tough decisions about how to spend their limited income.

“Currently, you cannot use WIC or SNAP dollars to buy diapers, so people are caught between a rock and a hard place. ‘Am I going to keep my baby clean and dry, or am I going to use my extra cash to meet other needs?’ It’s been an issue for years,” Harris said.

Day care centers typically require parents to supply their own diapers.

“If parents can’t afford to bring them, you have children who spend a considerable amount of time without being changed,” Harris said.

That makes diaper need both a health care issue and a poverty trap, Harris said.

Babies who sit too long in soiled diapers can get diaper rash, which can require medical care, she said. And a family who can’t afford to send enough diapers to day care might opt instead to stay home from work or school, which can have “a big impact on a family’s ability to move up out of poverty,” Harris added.

Diapers awaiting distribution are stacked floor to ceiling at the Triangle Park Community Center in Jersey City. (Photo courtesy of Monica Shaw)

Monica Shaw is director of the Triangle Park Community Center in Jersey City, which distributes diapers and baby formula to about 50 parents a week. She applauded the bill, but said it should come with a boost in benefits.

“It’s great that there would be a waiver, but if their stipend doesn’t increase and they have the same amount to pay for food and diapers, I don’t know how much it’s really going to help,” Shaw said. “It’s a burden for a family to have to decide between feeding their family and making sure their babies are properly healthy and clean.”

Speight’s bill isn’t the only measure state lawmakers have introduced to help reduce diaper need.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) introduced resolutions earlier this session calling on federal lawmakers to allow parents to use WIC or SNAP benefits to buy diapers. Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D-Gloucester), who gave birth to triplets last summer, introduced a resolution in February urging Congress to create a program to subsidize the cost of diapers.

And Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) introduced a bill last month to require insurers to cover the cost of diapers when they’re medically necessary.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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