The diaper divide: Parents struggle to clothe babies
'You just feel completely like a failure as a parent,' says Lee Ann Porter, founder of Galesburg's Loving Bottoms Diaper Bank
By Edward McClelland
GALESBURG — When Lee Ann Porter’s son William was 6 months old, her husband abandoned the family, leaving them destitute. Porter was so broke she couldn’t afford all the diapers her son needed, so she “stretched” her supply. Sometimes, she waited until William’s diaper was sodden with urine to change it. Other times, she set him naked on a towel, figuring, “if he pees on those, that’s one less diaper.
“When I couldn’t provide this for my child, you just feel completely like a failure as a parent,” Porter recalled. “I just remember crying. It only lasted three or four months, but it was long enough to make an impression on me. I really believe no mom should feel the way that I felt. I don’t want to live in a community where moms feel like that or dads feel like that.”
Today, Porter is the founder and executive director of Loving Bottoms Diaper Bank, which this year expects to distribute well over 100,000 free diapers to low-income families in western Illinois. Porter started the bank in a spare room of her home and now operates it out of a warehouse, where social-service agencies pick up 25-diaper packages wrapped by volunteers. Loving Bottoms is a member of the National Diaper Bank Network, an organization that aims to close the “diaper divide,” which results in one in three mothers struggling — and sometimes failing — to provide clean diapers for children. The Nation wrote about the crisis just last week.
One of those mothers is Jasmine Hempfing-King. Both of her daughters, 4-year-old Aaliegha and 2-year-old Kaili, are still in diapers. Hempfing-King lives in income-based housing and is studying for her high-school-equivalency degree, so she can find a job. Her husband is also a student.
At the ends of many months, Hempfing-King found herself low on diapers and short the $26 she needed for a box of Huggies from Walmart. She finally got diaper assistance after enrolling her daughter Kaili in Cradles to Crayons, the Regional Office of Education’s home-visit program for newborns to 3-year-olds. Besides teaching her how to deal with Kaili’s autism, Hempfing-King’s caseworker brings a 25-diaper package from Loving Bottoms every other week.
“Before that, I didn’t know which way to turn,” Hempfing-King said. “I’d be out at the end of the month. I’d go on Facebook and be one of those mothers begging and crying for diapers.”
The need for diapers is acute in Galesburg, where the economy has never recovered from Maytag’s decision to close a refrigerator plant that once employed 5,000 people and move its manufacturing operations to Mexico. Knox County’s 17.6 percent poverty rate is higher than the state’s average. For all children up to 5 years old, the poverty rate is 31.9 percent. In a rural community where many poor families can’t afford cars or even bus fare, it’s often necessary to distribute diapers through home-visit programs. But the Salvation Army stocks packages of Loving Bottoms diapers in its food pantry, which serves 1,700 individuals each month.
"This program is amazing," said Lt. Lisa Thorson, one of the heads of the Galesburg Salvation Army. "Because of her, we reach more people."
“Without a diaper bank, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are,” said Jaclyn Smith, the Salvation Army’s Emergency Services case manager. “It’s a gateway. For diapers, I feel like more parents swallow their pride. I’ve seen every walk of life come in here and get diapers.”
Despite that, diapers have not been acknowledged as a necessity of life by public policymakers, said Alison Weir, general counsel and chief of policy for the National Diaper Bank Network. She pointed out that leaving infants in wet diapers causes dermatitis that breaks down skin and increases the risk of urinary-tract infections, while leaving them in soiled diapers can spread fecal matter and infect entire families.
There are also psychological effects to diaper deprivation, for both mothers and infants. According to a study by the Yale School of Medicine, diaper need causes greater maternal stress and depression than even housing insecurity or food insecurity. That’s because there are many social programs addressing the need for food and shelter, but few for diapers. Those that do exist are at the state and local level, not nationwide.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act, which would provide grants to states to conduct diaper-distribution programs, but the bill never made it out of committee. Meanwhile, a study found that more than half of parents nationwide have missed work or school because they couldn’t put their children in diapers for day care.
California has passed a law reimbursing the cost of diapers for day care for families in the Welfare to Work program, up to $30 a month. Minnesota provides funding for diapers through its Food Shelf Program, which supports food pantries.
Two diaper-assistance bills are currently before the Illinois House of Representatives. One, sponsored by Rep. Robyn Gabel, of Evanston, would provide a diaper allowance of $80 a month for families with children under 3 years old who are living at less than half the federal poverty level. The bill didn’t make it out of committee in this session, but Gabel plans to reintroduce it next year. Providing mothers with clean diapers can prevent more expensive medical problems, she said.
“I think diapers are more like a medical supply than a commodity,” Gabel said.
Another bill, sponsored by Rep. LaToya Greenwood, of East St. Louis, would reduce the sales tax on diapers to 1 percent. Greenwood’s bill has no co-sponsors, even though eight states levy no sales tax on diapers, and the General Assembly recently repealed the sales tax on tampons.
In Illinois, diaper banks are funded entirely through private donations and grants. Loving Bottoms holds regular diaper drives. Choral Dynamics, a local singing group, made Loving Bottoms the beneficiary of its Christmas show, raising $10,000. This month, the bank held a Rock 'n' Roll Bingo fundraiser. Porter would like to see diaper aid added to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but “I’m not sure we can get that in Illinois, because of our current financial state. I can make a difference in my community, and the government can do its thing. I’m not going to wait for the government to fix this problem. Neighbors helping neighbors is how things get done.”
"I’m not going to wait for the government to fix this problem. Neighbors helping neighbors is how things get done."
Loving Bottoms Diaper Bank founder Lee Ann Porter (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
Jasmine Solis walked into the Daughters of Destiny food pantry on West 63rd Street in Chicago because she was desperate for diapers. Solis was unemployed, and often so broke she couldn’t diaper her 2-year-old son, Josiah. When there were no diapers in the house, she made sure Josiah was always near the bathroom so she could rush him to the toilet. When Josiah finished his business, she put him under the shower to clean him off. Sometimes, Solis’s stepmom helped her buy diapers, but when they couldn’t come up with the money for an entire box, she bought loose diapers for a dollar apiece at the corner store. That's just another way that being poor was more expensive than being rich, but at Daughters of Destiny she was able to take home a free box of 88 diapers — enough to last Josiah three weeks.
Daughters of Destiny’s food pantry is open two hours a week, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays. On the erector-set shelves lining the walls of the narrow storefront, among the cans of tomato soup, fresh cabbages, bags of Frosted Mini-Spooners, and pork loins fresh from the freezer, the pantry recently began stocking boxes of Huggies, said Apostle Bridget Outlaw, senior pastor of New Global Destiny Church, which oversees the pantry.
“I was seeing that the diaper disparity is so desperate in the community,” said Outlaw, whose pantry serves a Southwest Side mix of African Americans, Mexican immigrants, and elderly whites. “I’m seeing babies in no diapers, or they're wet. We look at it like it’s a luxury. It’s necessary. I saw a lot of the kids when they were wet, and they were withdrawn. They ought to have pride. What are the development issues to a baby’s not having diapers?”
After noticing urine on her food pantry’s floor, from diaperless babies dripping through their pants, Outlaw went out and bought diapers to distribute. Then, she called the National Diaper Bank Network, which arranged for a monthly shipment. Daughters of Destiny’s diaper bank is now supported by the staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Doctors and nurses there now order 11,000 diapers a year through Amazon, and have them shipped directly to the church. Huggies, which has donated 20 million diapers to banks around the country, contributes another 11,000.
Keeva Richmond picked up a 32-pack of Huggies for her 9-month-old son, Bryant. Although Richmond works as a certified nurse’s assistant at Mount Sinai Hospital, she often finds herself so short of money for diapers she has to borrow from her sisters. (According to salary.com, the median wage for a certified nurse’s assistant in Chicago is $33,657, which doesn’t go far toward raising a family in the city.)
“I have to buy my baby formula, because I don’t get [Women, Infants and Children],” Richmond said. “Plus, my baby was born premature, so his formula is expensive.”
It’s a story Outlaw has heard over and over again. It’s the reason she added diapers to her food pantry, and the reason diaper banks are opening all over Illinois. The National Diaper Bank Network lists 11, as far north as McHenry and as far south as Quincy.
“Once you pay the rent, once you pay for gas, once you pay for food,” she said, “there’s no money for diapers.”
This is the first in a One Illinois series of articles on the "diaper divide" leading up to Diaper Need Awareness Week starting Sept. 24.