‘It made me feel ashamed’: Poor moms’ anguish over diaper costs

July 29, 2013 at 12:02 AM ET

** FILE ** In a file photo a shopper and her child look at diapers at a Little Rock, Ark., Wal-Mart Super Center store Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2004. Kimbe...

DANNY JOHNSTON / AP file
One in three moms has struggled to pay for diapers, according to a new study. Eight percent say they’ve tried to make them last longer by leaving a wet diaper on their child or trying to clean and reuse it.

As a single working mom with no college education, Jessica Aragon was once so desperate for diapers she considered stealing them. Back then, she remembers, she barely had enough money to cover childcare and rent at the end of the month, let alone pay for baby wipes and diapers for her 1-year-old.

“For other needs, like food, you could go to a food bank,” Aragon, now 33, says. “But there was no help for things like diapers. I had to borrow money and sell everything I had — the DVD player, the TV – to get money for diapers.”

Sometimes she’d just have to skip a change and leave her baby wet so she’d have enough diapers to make it through the week. “It made me feel ashamed, like I was less of a mother,” the Columbus, Ohio, mom says.

As it turns out, Aragon is far from alone. Thirty percent of the women interviewed for a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics said they’d experienced a time when they could not afford to buy the diapers their kids needed. And a full 8 percent reported that they would “stretch” the diapers they had when their supply was running short by leaving a wet diaper on their child or partially cleaning the diaper and reusing it.

In fact, worry over how to pay for diapers is now among the top stressors for low-income parents, next to concerns about food and housing, researchers say.

The concerns come as Americans continue to grapple with the effects of the deep recession and weak recovery, which has left many families scrambling to keep up with rising bills. The nation’s median household income declined to $50,054 in 2011. After adjusting for inflation, that’s nearly 9 percent lower than the peak in 1999.

The problem is especially acute for single moms, who tend to already be among the most economically vulnerable. The overall poverty rate was 15 percent in 2011, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. But nearly 41 percent of female-headed households with children under age 18 were living below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. That compares to a little less than 9 percent of married-couple families with kids under 18.

The high percentage of moms who worry about affording diapers came as a surprise to the study’s lead author, Megan Smith, an assistant professor of psychiatry, child study and public health at the Yale School of Medicine.

Smith started out looking into stressors that impact the mental health of moms and especially the factors that affected their ability to bond with their kids. The more moms she talked to the more she realized that a big stressor for some of them was the inability to pay for diapers.

“Some were taking off their kids’ diapers and scraping off the contents and then putting them back on the child,” Smith says. “While that has an incredible impact on the health of the child in terms of urinary tract infections and rashes, it also impacts the self-esteem of the mom.”

Another big surprise to Smith: there are few federal dollars to pay for diapers. Neither WIC nor SNAP provide for diaper purchases.

For the study, Smith and her colleagues interviewed 877 pregnant and parenting women of various income levels in New Haven, Conn. The researchers located the women through health care providers and also by conducting outreach in various spots around the city, including schools, beauty shops, bus stops, playgrounds and grocery stores.

The women were asked questions about their basic demographics, mental health, substance use, trauma histories, health care and social service use, and basic needs — such as food, housing, and diapers.

While the new study focused on mothers in New Haven, Conn., experts note that many families across the country struggle to afford diapers. “The results of the study support the reports I hear every day from diaper bank leaders across the country,” says Joanne Goldblum, a study co-author and executive director of the National Diaper Bank Network, which helps provide diapers to low-income families.

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