Debate around the debt ceiling is bizarrely focused on making it harder for hungry Americans to access the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). America is not having trouble balancing the books because people in poverty are eating too well.
Compared with other industrialized democracies, we provide less in the way of cash transfers, children’s allowances and similar anti-poverty programs. It is no surprise that we have a higher poverty rate than peer nations. Meanwhile, billionaires pay an effective average tax rate of 8.2%.
While the prospect of more hunger is disturbing enough, it will be accompanied by a host of other hardships inflicted on the most vulnerable families in the country. We will have more babies sitting in wet, soiled diapers because their parents cannot afford to change them.
What is the connection between food insecurity and diaper need?
In March, SNAP assistance already took a hit with the sunsetting of a COVID-focused expansion of the program. Similarly, a pandemic-inspired federal moratorium on evictions expired last year, ripping families out of stable housing. Congress failed to continue a refundable child tax credit that lifted tens of millions of children out of poverty. All of these rollbacks in commitment to help the poorest Americans will leave more kids without diapers, more people who cannot afford to fill a prescription, more families huddled by a stove because they could not fill the oil tank. More and more of less and less.
Should diapers and period products be added to SNAP and WIC?
Some well-meaning advocates and legislators are considering bills to add coverage for hygiene items to nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children) without increasing household benefits. Doing so would be a disservice to the families we help. This idea exposes a broken way of thinking: “We only have $X to help people living in poverty.” We know that current funding for SNAP and WIC does not provide enough food to get a family through the month. Plus, too many people in need are excluded from these programs. Even with the essential aid supplied through SNAP and WIC, more than 38 million people, including 12 million children, are food insecure. Adding hygiene products to SNAP and WIC will keep struggling people exactly where they are now: Forced to choose between buying diapers or groceries.
What can the government do to end diaper need?
Last week, Tennessee’s governor and state legislature approved the Fiscal Year 2023-2024 budget which includes first-of-its- kind legislation to cover the cost of diapers for the first two years of a baby’s life through the state’s TennCare Medicaid waiver. This innovative approach will help improve the health and well-being of mothers and infants.
Similarly, the Connecticut legislature is expected to move forward with a task force to study Medicaid coverage of diapers and other health-related social needs.
There’s a logic here: research shows that supplying enough diapers for children makes it more likely that they will stay healthy, thus saving Medicaid on costs. One of the most hopeful innovations of the Biden administration has been the creation of a pilot program to provide federal funding to help low-income families obtain diapers. Diaper banks have repeatedly demonstrated that doing so improves health – for parents and children, increases access to early child education and helps parents to succeed at work and school.
It is cheaper to make sure people have the things they need to thrive than to address the crises that occur because they do not. During the pandemic, the U.S. committed to expanding resources to ensure that more people had the basics of life. Now public investments in families are waning.
Can nonprofits end diaper need?
Nonprofits will do what we’ve always done: fill the gap — but not all of the gap. The number of diaper banks in the country has grown exponentially in the past decade. Individual, community and corporate donations to diaper banks have increased. News stories in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The Economist, and hundreds of local media outlets have recounted the heroic work of diaper banks in the U.S. Even with such support, the diaper bank community is able to serve less than 10% of the families experiencing diaper need. This is a public health crisis that is simply too big to be solved without public investment.
As politicians debate how our federal dollars should be spent, we must insist that every child has the basics they need to thrive – and not just during a pandemic.
The emergency is now.