Imagine what it’s like to be young and poor: Money is short, jobs are scarce, someone gets sick, and then the car breaks down. Of all the daily hassles you can imagine in this scenario, one that probably doesn’t come to mind is running short on diapers.
Yet this is what often pushes families over the edge, says Emily Pepin, who counsels young mothers facing homelessness at Youth Shelters and Family Services in Santa Fe. “I get questions about diapers all the time,” she says. “It’s what gets them into the program for housing and education. It’s like a gateway.”
Young moms are often reluctant to ask for help, Pepin says, but desperation for diapers brings them in, as there’s no way to pay for them but out of pocket. Federal benefits such as SNAP (food stamps) and WIC can’t be used, and disposable diapers are expensive – about $70 to $80 a month, according to the National Diaper Bank Network.
“It’s an amazing help for young mothers,” Iris Barba says of Pepin’s program, which she visits regularly for diapers and wipes for her infant daughter. “Not only does Emily help out with diapers, but she helps me out with clothing, formula and programs.”
Barba was 19 and pregnant when she first came to the shelter, and the baby’s father was in jail. Pepin helped get her on emergency Medicaid and back in school, and is now working to find her permanent housing.
A glaring gap in federal benefits for the poor, the “diaper disparity” has started to get national attention after President Barack Obama mentioned it at the SXSW festival in March, and the White House website put out a call for creative solutions.
“There are no safety nets, as with food and health,” says Jennifer West, who coordinates The Diaper Depot, a program of the Food Depot in Santa Fe that provides disposable diapers to 28 nonprofit agencies in northern New Mexico, including Pepin’s. “But they’re as important to a family as food.”
Desperate moms will sometimes try to stretch diapers, changing them less often or washing and reusing them, West says. In some cases, they might have to choose diapers over necessities like food, utilities or rent.
The problem is especially acute in New Mexico, which has only one agency in the National Diaper Bank Network. The Diaper Depot distributes 90,000 diapers a year, but only within the nine counties of northern New Mexico.
“We do get calls from Albuquerque and surrounding communities,” West says. “It’s so important, and it’s really sad.”
According to the Diaper Depot, one in three New Mexican families struggles to afford diapers, as our state has the highest child poverty rate among the 50 states, according to a 2016 analysis by New Mexico Voices for Children.
In rural areas, and even in the city, low-income parents often lack the resources to shop at big-box stores or buy online in bulk, so they pay even more than the national average of $936 per child per year quoted by the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Until last year, Albuquerque was served by the Diaper Bank of New Mexico, which distributed diapers to 47 nonprofit agencies. But founder Susan Dooreck moved out of state, and no one has stepped in to fill the gap.
As a result, agencies serving low-income families in the state’s largest city have had to scramble for alternatives.
“Sometimes we’ll have to give people a gift card to get them,” says Allen Sanchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, a Catholic nonprofit serving central New Mexico. In an emergency, he says, the agency will buy diapers, but for the long term, he encourages clients to “go green” and consider using cloth.
“It’s a lot more work, but it’s better for the environment. You have to change them more often, but it’s good for the children to have that extra contact. For years that was done – washing them, sanitizing them. In the long run they find less financial burden than with disposable diapers.”
One problem with cloth, however, is that day care centers require disposables, according to Jennifer West. “I have yet to find a day care that will allow cloth,” she said, “and many laundry services will not allow laundering cloth diapers.”
Other agencies have started their own diaper drives, like Enlace Comunitario, which solicits diapers on its homepage. “It’s a strong need for families who are enduring a lot of stress,” says the group’s Jessica Pinera, who works with Spanish-speaking mothers escaping domestic violence. “Especially during the holidays, we have a need.”
In some respects, the demand for diapers serves agencies that target families in crisis, signaling when they are in trouble.
“We’re always screening for when there’s high stress in the home,” says Francesca Duran-Lopez, who runs the home visiting program at PB&J Family Services in Albuquerque. “As stress increases, so do the chances for child abuse.”
PB&J often gets calls about diapers, she says, and that gives counselors an opening to ask about the family’s situation and offer help. PB&J solicits donations of diapers and also buys them out of its own funds.
“We’re happy when families call in,” Duran-Lopez says. “We can get down to the root of why they need diapers. Sometimes there’s a huge underlying need, and we can help with diapers, but also connect them with resources in the community. It really helps us to help the family.”