Vic Velivis has never changed a diaper in his life.

But the retired computer and IT expert has distributed millions of diapers as founder and unpaid director of the Utah Diaper Bank, which began with a pile of diapers that eventually took over his home and garage and has grown to require a pair of donated warehouses in the Salt Lake City area, where they’re repackaged by volunteers for distribution.

The 73-year-old Velivis, who never had children, was shocked nearly a decade ago to learn that access to diapers is a key factor in whether low-income families can escape poverty. Even crisis nurseries required families to provide them.

Inability to afford an adequate number of diapers is called “diaper need” and it’s a serious challenge that is attracting broad attention across the country. Programs designed to aid struggling families, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children do not help with diapers.

The National Diaper Bank Network, which includes more than 200 local diaper banks, says 1 in 3 families with babies or toddlers can’t afford to buy enough diapers to make sure little ones stay clean, dry and healthy. That’s a huge number, since the U.S. has more than 15.5 million children under age 3. One-fifth of all children are infants and toddlers. 

Two-thirds of their mothers work. And federal assistance programs commonly have work requirements to access financial aid. But while block grants and other federal programs may help with child care costs so parents can work, parents must provide the diapers used in child care.

When parents can’t afford diapers or run out early, the network says:

  • Babies face possible health problems like urinary tract infections, diaper rash and toxic stress. They need more doctor visits.
  • Mothers may face “increased maternal depression.” Jamie Lackey, CEO of Helping Mamas, a basic needs bank in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, said mental health is a related issue. When parents can’t meet basic needs, it impacts how they feel about themselves and as parents. 
  • Parents are turned away by child care.
  • If that happens, they miss school or work.

June data from the network says 47% of families with young children nationwide struggle to afford diapers. And while most who need diaper help work, more than 3 in 5 families receiving diapers earn less than $20,000 a year.

Put simply, inadequate diaper supply may jeopardize a family’s ability to move ahead financially.

“There is so much power and hope in diapers,” said Lackey, a social worker for 25 years who realized about a decade ago the role diapers play in trapping low-income families in poverty.

While addressing diaper need used to be more common in blue states, diapering low-income babies is now a cause crossing political lines. Red state leaders increasingly promote policies that may include diapers. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, for instance, said his state will propose covering diapers for Medicaid recipients for the first two years of a baby’s life. “That’s pro-life. That’s pro-family,” he said.

Diaper assistance has become more emphasized by states in the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, according to Joanne Goldblum, CEO and founder of the National Diaper Bank Network.

Student volunteers from Stillwater Academy label, rewrap and sort diapers at the Utah Diaper Bank in Murray on Friday, July 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Very basic need

Goldblum believes diapers, like period products, are a basic need that intersects with major issues like health and finances. She calls sales tax on them regressive, because the less money people have, the higher percentage of that money goes to the state for something they cannot do without.

For someone making federal minimum wage, diapers for one child can cost 8% of total income, according to federal Health and Human Services statistics.

Goldblum first saw the impact of not having adequate resources to afford diapers nearly 20 years ago. She was a social worker doing direct services work in New Haven, Connecticut, an industrial town with many low-income working families. National welfare reform had just passed and she started seeing overlooked basics. “It became clear that there was no state or federal subsidy for diapers or any other hygiene products, or cleaning supplies or over-the-counter medication. … We think about the big things, right?” she told the Deseret News.

A family moving from homelessness to housing gets housing help, she said, but has to scrounge up a bed or utensils or mattresses. “You can’t maintain a house that way. And then we say, ‘Oh, they weren’t able to maintain housing.’ We have child care subsidies, though not enough of them, but we don’t consider that most child care centers — even those subsidized, except Head Start — require parents to provide an adequate supply of disposable diapers.”

She was driven, too, by awareness of her status as a privileged woman, she said. “When my kids were young, I could complain bitterly about how stressful it was and I was forgiven all sorts of things. If I forgot to sign a permission slip, they’d let me call and say they can take my kid or I could fax it. I had paid time off. If I really needed to do something, I could.  Poor women are not given the level of grace that comes with money. Diapers are really a  window into poverty for a lot of people who haven’t thought about the idea that you might not have the most basic things you need.”

Student volunteers from Stillwater Academy label, rewrap and sort diapers at the Utah Diaper Bank in Murray on Friday, July 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Goldblum told her husband what her research was showing so often that he responded, “Joanne, it can’t be that hard. Let’s just start getting people diapers.” The New Haven Diaper Bank and later the national network were born.

Diaper banks can buy diapers at significant discounts. And diaper manufacturers donate directly, too. Huggies, for instance, is the founding and largest sponsor of the National Diaper Bank Network and donates about 20 million diapers a year to network diaper banks, Goldblum said.

Lackey’s road to establishing Helping Mamas was similar to Velivis’ and Goldblum’s. All began with surprise that diaper help was scarce and need so great. They saw the consequences for families. And they acted.

Goldblum thinks COVID-19 helped Americans relate more viscerally to the diaper need of low-income families. “It was really the first time that many Americans had experienced not being able to get what they needed when they went to the store,” she said. Searching for toilet paper and other basic supplies was “really very eye-opening for a lot of people. Diaper banks and I believe food banks and other basic needs organizations saw a real increase in support.”

The needs were not new, she said. “I think COVID sort of laid it more bare for people.”

Velivis said the Utah Diaper Bank was “hobbling along” until about three years ago, when people seemed more aware of both need and ramifications. Now it regularly distributes diapers to 30 organizations, as well as providing one-time help to some others whose clients face diaper need.

The Utah Diaper Bank’s first full year, 2014, it distributed 14,404 diapers, compared to last year’s 1.3 million diapers. In 2023, the bank is on track to give away 1.6-1.7 million diapers. Volunteer help has grown exponentially, too. His friend Tom Coburn retired and donates up to 30 hours a week arranging shipping and other logistics. A friend who owns a print shop donates signs and banners. The warehouses and their utilities are donated. All the money that comes in buys diapers at discounted prices. HomeAid, a group of builders, holds the largest diaper drive in Utah. This year it’s Aug. 25, with a goal to collect 750,000 diapers. Others hold drives, too. Meanwhile, individuals, service organizations and church groups volunteer to repackage diapers to distribute to programs serving low-income families.

No one gets paid. Everything’s a gift of helping hearts and hands.

Utah’s also home to Little Lambs Foundation for Kids in northern Utah, which provides diapers and baby supplies to low-income families, as well as comfort kits for foster care and other shelter programs.

Goldblum, Velivis and Lackey all told the Deseret News they still cannot meet all the need.

Thousands of diapers are stacked at the Utah Diaper Bank in Murray on Friday, July 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Official — and growing — help

Nationally, a bill was introduced in the House, HR3352, that if passed would treat diapers as a qualified medical expense under Health Savings Accounts and ban state and local taxes on diapers.

By mid-2022, 21 states had acted on their own, providing some sales tax relief on diapers. Sales tax on diapers in states that levy it range from 4% to 7%, according to the diaper network. 

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington have provided funding for diaper distribution and each has done it differently. California, for instance, put $30 million over three years directly to diaper banks to distribute diapers and also provides a $30 monthly stipend for those who receive CalWorks assistance. Vermont used $132,00 of its COVID-19 emergency relief money on diaper need. Georgia allocated $1.2 million for diapers for families with young children who receive TANF benefits, while Washington state lawmakers created a $5 million budget item for diapers over two years.

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That Georgia effort In 2022 distributed 210,924 diapers to 184 children on TANF, said Lackey, whose program is involved in the diaper distribution. Families with young children on TANF received a four-month supply, about 1,200 diapers per child — “a significant savings for them,” she said.

Part of the goal is to study how providing diapers boosts families’ upward mobility. She said 69% of families who received diaper assistance from the state said they would use the money saved to pay for rent, utilities and other household expenses. All said that “receiving diapers made their family feel more stable,” Lackey said.

The money came not directly from the Georgia legislature, but from funds allocated to the state’s Department of Family and Children’s Services to help TANF families.

All state Medicaid programs must provide diapers for children if they are part of medical treatment. But documentation requirements and implementation vary.

Some local governments have also taken steps to boost access to diapers. San Francisco contracts to provide diapers to those with children under age 3 enrolled in TANF. In Westchester County, New York, Junior League collects diapers and money and a county social services program stores and distributes diapers to needy families. Harrison County, Iowa’s public health department has a diaper bank. One Ohio county has a diaper program for families in a home visiting program, a collaboration with the local Salvation Army, the county health department and a hospital council.

Lackey said diaper banks get good corporate, community and nonprofit support. The missing piece is strong policy support.

But it’s getting better.

In 2022, for the first time, Congress appropriated $10 million, then $20 million in 2023 to expand diaper distribution programs. Advocates hope that level will continue in 2024.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced a second round of grants in its Diaper Distribution Pilot, totaling $8.2 million ($16.2 million overall). New pilot sites are Alabama, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Utah, and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation. That doubles participating states and tribes. “Grant recipients will work with Community Action Agencies, social service agencies, and local diaper banks to strengthen and expand existing distribution infrastructure and provide wraparound support services to assist families experiencing critical diaper need,” the agency said.

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Velivis estimates that will give Utah another 400,000 diapers and the project impact will be measured.

Tom Coburn, operations manager for the Utah Diaper Bank, wraps two bundles of diapers as he helps a group of students to label, rewrap and sort diapers at the Utah Diaper Bank in Murray on Friday, July 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

To lend a hand

For folks who wonder why those with diaper need don’t use cloth diapers to save money, Goldblum said some diaper banks provide cloth. Diaper banks in Portland, Oregon, and the Diaper Bank of the Ozarks in Springfield, Missouri, are among those with big cloth diaper components. Community culture plays a role.

But child care centers typically require disposable diapers. And many low-income families use laundromats, making cloth diapers impractical in terms of cost and time. They are more practical for those who can afford a diaper service — out of the question for low-income households.

As for helping out, diaper banks are always looking for donations — both diapers and dollars, which can be used to buy diapers at discounted prices. They need lots of volunteers, too.

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