Spotlight Exclusives

Diaper Banks See ‘Exponential’ Increase in Need During Pandemic

Joanne Goldblum Joanne Goldblum, posted on

The struggle to afford and access diapers has long been an issue for American families, but never more so than during the COVID-19 pandemic. National Diaper Bank Network CEO and founder Joanne Goldblum says some of her member diaper banks saw increases in demand of up to 600 percent. Goldblum spoke with Spotlight recently about the pandemic experience for diaper banks and the current state of legislation on the issue, as well as her recent book, Broke in America, which she wrote with co-author Colleen Shaddox. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Clearly, the demand for diapers during the pandemic has been dramatically higher. Tell us about the network’s experience and where things are currently.

You’re absolutely right – the pandemic has opened a lot of people’s eyes to what has been going on and the reality of how so many people in our country struggle. What we’ve seen is an exponential growth in need. And we’ve seen a great increase in donations – but not enough to match the need. On average, diaper banks this year, the year of the pandemic, distributed about 86% more diapers than they had the year before. And that does not begin to meet the need, as diaper banks were seeing their need increase by several hundred percent. There are diaper banks that are telling us they are seeing a 500 to 600 percent increase. That’s not surprising to you, because we know that prior to the pandemic, the need was great. Adding so many more people to the rolls of people that need help has really put nonprofits in a very, very difficult position.

And none of the governmental response to the pandemic, at least at the federal level, has specifically dealt with the demand for diapers, correct?

In the most recent package, there was money that went to MIECHV (The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program) that included an extra $50 million that could be used for diapers and/or other material, basic needs that families that are serviced by MIECHV might get. It’s the first time diapers have been explicitly included in any federal legislation. But it’s also not the kind of federal support that will exponentially increase the number of families that are served.

Has there been anything at the state or local level during the pandemic that has addressed this need?

There have been, on a state level. California and Connecticut have really led the way. In California, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has been a fierce advocate over the past few years and they have a few different things. They’ve allocated money – last year it was $20 million – to getting diapers out to families who need them in the state. They’ve also created a diaper stipend for families who participate in CalWORKS, which I believe is $30 per month per child.

In Connecticut last year, there was money included in the budget to pay for diapers. It was complicated, in that it was money that came through the Department of Social Services and in the end what they decided to do was to work directly with the Diaper Bank of Connecticut. When it started it was $500,00 but the budget has gone through a number of changes and my understanding is that it’s now half of that and could go down again.

And there’s a number of other states that are looking at things. In Vermont, I know that some of the CARES Act money went to diapers. California’s the only state where there’s been legislative movement but other states have included some money for diapers through the budgetary process.

Obviously, increasing the child tax credit and making it refundable helps vulnerable families better afford diapers, but is there anything specific on diapers that the new administration is considering?

There is in the House and Senate, there’s not specifically with the new administration. Congresswomen (Rosa) DeLauro (D-CT) and (Barbara) Lee (D-CA) have been advocates for many years now and have introduced something called the End Diaper Need Act of 2021 and which has gotten some traction. There has been a companion Senate bill and more than that, since the pandemic has started there have been several pushes to get federal money – we’re looking at $200 million – for diapers. We’ve gotten very close but didn’t quite make it into the last round. We’re hopeful we’ll get into the next. We have strong support in the Senate and even more excitingly bipartisan support – (Sen.) Chris Murphy (D-CT), (Sen.) Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), (Sen.) Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and (Sen.) Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

What would be your ideal solution? Would it be to make diapers eligible for SNAP or WIC or would you want a separate revenue stream?

Thank you for that question, as it’s really interesting; we don’t think that SNAP or WIC are the right vehicles for a few different reasons. One is they are nutritional subsidies run out of the Department of Agriculture and the way they’re written they are very focused on nutrition. The other thing is they’re both chronically underfunded and what we really worry about is somebody opening them up without adding money. So, it really would be defining our way out of a problem without actually solving the problem. We feel strongly that it is important not to put those programs in the crosshairs on this. We think that TANF is a great vehicle. There’s been some conversation about doing it through Community Development Block Grants, which on one hand makes a lot of sense. One of the things we know about diaper banks is that they are independent organizations that are run based on what their community needs. So, if it were to go through that, communities would really be able to target the response. There are other possibilities but we strongly believe that whatever happens, there has to be additional funding. We all know that programs that support Americans in poverty are chronically underfunded and if we’re going to address this need, we have to put money behind it.

And try to utilize the existing diaper bank network as much as possible?

That’s right

Zooming back out a little bit, we started by talking about how the need for diapers has increased during the pandemic and I’d love to hear a little bit more about how attitudes about this issue may have changed as a result of the pandemic. We did an interview recently with a group focused on period poverty and the perspective was much the same. How much have hearts and minds on this topic been changed by the pandemic?

I think a lot has changed – and we work on the issue of period poverty as well. Six months ago, I would not have thought that the policies that Biden is implementing right now would have been possible. I think that at the beginning of the pandemic when we had all of the hoarding and the shortages, I think that people who have never experienced the stress of having their basic needs met were all of a sudden facing that. And I think it was really, really eye-opening for people to go to a store and find that things they needed weren’t there. It’s funny, so much of the conversation in the pandemic was about toilet paper and it was actually toilet paper that got me into thinking about material basic needs. And I do think that a lot of people for the first time were able to think about how horrible it must be not to be able to meet their material basic needs. We have certainly seen at the National Diaper Bank Network incredible generosity and I know most of our member diaper banks have seen that as well.

That leads us somewhat naturally to your book. I’m guessing you started this long before anyone knew what COVID-19 was and before you knew that there would be a new administration taking pretty striking steps on poverty policy. Give me a sense of how you see things at this moment after the process of writing this book. Are you encouraged with what you’re seeing so far from the new administration?

Absolutely I’m encouraged. I wrote this book with a co-author, Colleen Shaddox, who is a journalist. I’m a social worker and we’ve worked together over the years on a number of different projects. Both of us believe deeply that poverty is not gravity and that in the United States, poverty could be ended. It’s a matter of will, of putting our minds and hearts and money behind the policies that need to be implemented. And certainly, I think it’s fair to say that neither of us could have imagined this happening under a Biden administration as it is happening. The refundable Child Tax Credit is honestly so long overdue. It always struck me all these years when people talked about the EITC as the way out of poverty that it wasn’t available to those in the deepest poverty. It’s game-changing. The fact that we’re now talking at a national level about child care is so exciting. And the fact that we’re making cash transfers is incredibly hopeful. To me, if we can do it during the pandemic, it’s clear to people that we can do it.

In our book, there were two primary points. One is that poverty is not gravity and the other is that people in poverty in the United States tend to be demonized. We have all of these thoughts and sayings and we think, in our society, that people in poverty don’t work, or don’t work hard or are cheating. We really felt like it was important that the average American know that that’s just not the case. Generally speaking, people in poverty are working several jobs. The fact is that our problem in the United States is that the gap between what many Americans make and the cost to live is just too large. And there are various ways we could address that, principally either getting more money to people or making things cost less. Realistically, it’s getting more money to people and the fact that we are now doing cash transfers really opens up the possibility that when people don’t have enough money to meet their material basic needs, there will be resources available.

What we try to talk about in the book is that while people in poverty need money, they also sometimes just need what they need. I think that’s why originally I started with diapers, because it’s just so simple. It’s such a small thing, but as we always say, small things impact big things. Something as small as a diaper can make the difference between being able to go to work and not being able to go to work. For whatever the reason, it just hasn’t been part of the policy conversation until recently. We always go back to the fact of, what are all the things you need to do to get out of the house in the morning, all the things you do in the bathroom and you do in the kitchen. Those are all things that if you need to have money for – soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant – and they are all things that impact how the world around you sees you

When we think about the big picture, it’s also really important to think about the little picture.

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