On Diaper Stamps

In last few months especially, there has been a big media push in favor of creating a new diaper welfare program. The push seems to have its origins in 2010, when the Huggies diapers brand commissioned a study showing the need for diapers among the poor. In that same year, Huggies founded the National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN), which was headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies, also has a large production facility in nearby New Milford, Connecticut. A year after the NDBN was formed, in 2011, CT representative Rosa DeLauro first introduced the DIAPER Act in the House (cosponsored by 3 of the other 4 CT representatives, among 16 others) and CT Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced the same bill in the Senate (with no cosponsors).

The exact contours of the desired diaper welfare program are unclear, but proposals I’ve seen include block granting money to states so that they can provide actual physical diapers in-kind to people in need and a SNAP-like system where diapers could be bought using EBT cards. While this is all obviously well intended, it’s also amazingly absurd at the same time.

The crux of the argument for a means-tested, in-kind diaper program is summed up by this graph based on the Current Expenditure Survey.


Since diapers cost the same whether you are poor or rich, it turns out that when you divide diaper expenditures by income, those with lower incomes end up spending a greater share of it on diapers than those with higher incomes. It may also be the case, though evidence on this front is not forthcoming, that poorer people spend more money per diaper for the usual “being poor is expensive” reasons — can’t shop in bulk, nearby retail is sparse and heavily marked up, etc.

The argument that many families with young children don’t have enough income to meet their basic needs is obviously well taken by me. You don’t need to divide diaper expenditures by income to prove that. A glance at the child poverty statistics is more than enough evidence on that front.

But the question is what should we do about this? Should we really create a new block grant or SNAP-like program to provide means-tested, in-kind diapers? Do we really need another one of these “commodities” type programs? Is it smart to have people lose their diaper supply when they receive more income, along with their food stamps and healthcare (Medicaid)?

The answer is of course no.

If you want to offset the costs of diapers for parents of young children, that can be done extremely easily by simply giving every single family with young children a cash payment each month equal to the cost of diapers.

In the Washington Post piece on the topic, Luke Tate is quoted as saying some people spend as much as $1,000 per year on diapers. So let’s use that figure and say each family will receive approximately $83/month for every child under 3 in their family. According to the 2015 ASEC, there are approximately 15.9 million children under the age of 3 in the US. If you multiply that by the $1,000 per child, that’s $15.9 billion, which is equal to slightly less than 0.09% of GDP. For a fiscal rounding error, you coud give every single family in the country enough money to pay for diapers.

Regular readers will know that this cash-for-diapers program is just a type of child allowance, a topic The Century Foundation recently released an excellent paper on. This is the direction we should be going for providing resource boosts to families with children (especially young children), not more bizarre means-tested, in-kind deliveries of particular commodities. The child allowance is clean, easily administered, and universal. Diaper stamps is a kludge that will involve much higher administration costs and create weird means-tested cliffs that make life miserable for low-earners while also unnecessarily thinning out the program’s constituency.

  • Baldie McEagle

    No job, no clean pee, no diapers. Them’s the rules.


  • zebbart

    Sounds like these Connecticut politicians are bought and paid for by Big Daiper. Show me an honest man who has he strength and character to stand up and fight Big Daiper.

  • Amber Catherine Kerr

    This article didn’t mention the difference between disposable and cloth diapers, but it’s an important distinction, and it can help refute the assumption that “diapers cost the same whether you are poor or rich.” Cloth diapers are expensive upfront – a single good-quality cloth diaper can cost as much as $20. But a cloth diaper can be reused hundreds of times, so even factoring in the cost of laundry, they more than pay for themselves (a single disposable diaper usually costs $0.20 – $0.50). Unfortunately, a low-income family is not likely to be able to make the up-front investment of several hundred dollars to buy a full set of cloth diapers. They may also be less likely to have time to spare for additional loads of laundry. Instead, they end up spending thousands of dollars per year on the easier, quicker, more incremental, but ultimately more expensive option.

  • zero

    A load of laundry at the laundromat (or similar) will cost around $4 and you will need to run one load per two days per child. That’s $60 per month, which is fairly close to the $83 figure presented above for disposables. If you don’t already do laundry every one to two days that means extra trips; if it’s more than walking distance then each trip will cost you bus fare as well.
    Suppose you can save $23/mo this way, or $828 per child vs. the cost of disposables. Great! Unfortunately you still have to buy the cloth diapers, liners, storage pail and possibly a sprayer. 36 diapers (12 each of three sizes) at $20 each run $720; this isn’t necessarily all up front but even $240 at once for a year’s supply is a heavy burden. We’ve also eliminated all but $108 of savings vs. disposables and we still don’t have a pail. It’s possible to use cloth diapers with substantial overall savings, but it’s not feasible for a poor family to do so.

    I’m with the author on this, a flat monthly cash payment to all families with children makes sense. It’s the cheapest and simplest way to provide help for the families that need it, even those we wouldn’t normally consider poor. We should go beyond that and make the child tax credit and other benefits & incentives both flat and payable monthly.

    Of course, if you follow that line of thought to its logical conclusion we should replace all current forms of means-tested aid with a basic income.