The poop on the diaper divide

State Rep. Robyn Gabel backs $80-a-month diaper program as a preventive health issue

 (Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

It was women's and children's health issues that got Robyn Gabel engaged in politics, so it should come as no surprise that as a politician she's primarily engaged in those very same subjects.

"I got involved in politics initially through the women's health movement in the '70s," state Rep. Gabel of Evanston said Thursday. "I worked in feminist women's health centers for a number of years."

In fact, she ran the nonprofit Illinois Maternal Child Health Coalition for 22 years before being elected to the General Assembly in 2010. (Now known as EverThrive Illinois, it's about to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a benefit fundraiser later this month.)

"I discovered that one-on-one care is great and very fulfilling," Gabel added, "but really to change the mass of women's and people's lives we needed to change policy."

She's proud of working to get public health coverage extended to pregnant women, "because the baby that's going to be born, you have to take care of the baby's health care, so you might as well take care of the mother." The same goes for undocumented women, "because the babies that were going to be born here were also going to be citizens."

They were preventive issues because, for the state, it was a matter of paying relatively little now or potentially much more later treating health issues that could have been avoided.

Gabel sees the same in treating the "diaper divide," the inability of some parents to pay for the essential diapers to keep a baby dry and in good health.

"It's really a health issue," Gabel said. "Babies who don't have diapers, who aren't changed enough, end up with rashes and infections. It's very unhealthy." In addition, fecal matter can spread health problems throughout a family.

"There's a lot of angst in the moms well," she added. "You want to be the best mom you can be, and here you are not being able to get diapers on your child."

It's a surprisingly common problem that is often hidden, but agencies like Lee Ann Porter's Loving Bottoms Diaper Bank in Galesburg have been trying to address it by getting diapers to as many needy parents as possible.

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"One-on-one care is great and very fulfilling, but really to change the mass of women's and people's lives we needed to change policy."

State Rep. Robyn Gabel

So last year Gabel sponsored a bill that would have provided $80 a month to eligible families to pay for diapers for kids up to 3 years old. She pointed out it was deliberately very restrictive, setting a threshold of half the poverty level to qualify, so that if a family's defining poverty line were $16,000, they'd have to be making $8,000 or less to get a debit card to "pay for diapers and only diapers," she said.

"To me, it was very targeted. It was going to go exactly to the people who needed it the most," Gabel said. "I think diaper banks are incredibly valuable. I'm glad they're doing them. But this actually brings the diaper to the person."

The bill failed to advance, however, meeting largely Republican resistance, she said, with the ageless line, "Where are you going to get the money?"

"Our budget still is not looking great," Gabel allowed. "Legislators are reluctant to add an additional cost to the budget."

But she thinks the time will soon come.

"The budget got fixed — somewhat — and the economy's doing a little better," Gabel said. "So we'll see where we're at next year."

It's worth noting that House Speaker Michael Madigan signed on as a co-sponsor earlier this year.

Gabel is chairwoman of the House Human Services Committee, and she said she may yet team her bill up with one sponsored by Rep. LaToya Greenwood of East St. Louis that would trim the sales tax on diapers to 1 percent.

According to Gabel, the diaper divide is an issue in Evanston just as it is in communities across the state.

"There's low-income people everywhere, and people have different pressures on their budget at different times," Gabel said. She cited how almost half of the students at Evanston Township High School receive free or reduced-price lunches. "So we have some struggling families."

More than that, she said, it's a public-health issue and the state's constitutional obligation.

"The state has many programs that allow people to live at their fullest capacity and really protect children," Gabel said. "It's in our preamble that we're here to protect the health and welfare of our people. And I think this is another example of a program that would truly do that for children."