I did some research on the costs of diapers back in the fall of 2015 using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey.1 I found that, of those who buy diapers, the poorest quintile by income spent nearly 14 percent of their after-tax income on them.

There are some caveats:

  • I made no distinction between reusable and disposable diapers in the BLS’s “infant underwear” category, although this can be assumed to be a proxy for disposable diapers since their use is prevalent.2 For the conclusion, it is also assumed that diaper buyers take care of children and are buying diapers for that use.
  • I conservatively used the average after-tax income for the poorest quintile to come up with the share of diaper expenditures. Diaper buyers might have a lower after-tax income than average because those who buy diapers (and by extension, are taking care of children) are more likely to have a reduced income from, for example, taking time off of work. Relatedly it’s important to note that some of the people in the poorest quintile are only there temporarily. A household with two-income earners that normally made $200,000 a year may make significantly less money and fall into the poorest quintile if both income earners take time off from work after having children.
  • After-tax income includes all government transfers except for those related to housing assistance.

These caveats do not fundamentally alter the conclusions that one would normally draw from this research: that diapers are a costly necessity that can take up a large portion of a household’s income and that disproportionately hurts households with the lowest incomes (including those that temporarily have low incomes).

Because diapers are such a significant burden, this research should prompt interest in ways this burden can be alleviated. The Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act of 2015 is a first step in doing that. It allows states to create pilot projects to provide diapers or subsidies for diapers to poor households. This is important because benefits from some social programs, like food stamps or WIC, cannot be used on diapers.

The bill is obviously not without its flaws. While the bill does allow for direct transfers for diapers, I would ideally support direct transfers as the only option. It is understandable why the bill allows for other options, like vouchers or direct distribution of diapers: that is how some of our social programs currently work. Unfortunately these options have been met with ridicule by some on the Left, e.g. Matt Bruenig (see 1, 2, 3, 4). Although he has good criticism and a fair commentary on the state of our social programs, I’d hope that it wouldn’t lead people to oppose the bill. In this case, qualified support for the bill (which works within our current, imperfect system) could not only help alleviate the burden associated with diapers but also increase the mandate of our social programs. (Of course, one could also oppose the bill from a strategic perspective, e.g. it would further normalize how the government provides benefits.)

What people on the Left should be skeptical of is the sort of initiative that the White House has announced. Launched at SXSW, it would use “technology” to ease the burden caused by diapers. Partnering with corporations (who are in it to sell diapers primarily), it would help diaper banks and others buy diapers in bulk, lowering the cost per diaper. The problem is that while poor people tend to pay more per diaper because they don’t have access to big box stores or online subscription programs, diapers are expensive no matter how you buy them. And because they are a necessity (and there are no practical substitutes for disposable diapers2), buying in bulk will do very little to help the people who need to buy them and who also have low incomes. The initiative also feeds into the neoliberal narrative that technology and tech companies can solve intractable social problems, which has never and will never be the case.

Update, May 2017: The Bureau of Labor Statistics released a useful article about the Consumer Expenditure Survey’s income group data. Specifically, it describes how the construction of quintiles could include consumer units not usually thought of as being in those quintiles.

1: The Consumer Expenditure Survey is an essential survey and suited toward this research, but one can also learn about the costs of diapers by simply figuring out how much they cost per child in a few cases (there is probably not that much variation from the average) . The frequently cited average monthly cost of $70 to $100 per child fits well with my results.

2: A common refrain when talking about the costs of disposable diapers is that those who struggle with the costs should consider reusable diapers, which are said to better and cheaper (in spite of the fact that few people, rich or poor, use them). To use reusable diapers, one must either use a dedicated cleaning service to launder the diapers or have their own washing machine (laundromats do not tend to allow the washing of reusable diapers). Neither one of these options make reusable diapers a viable option for the poor. Also, reusable diapers make traveling difficult or impossible.