Pandemic has exacerbated “diaper need” in the U.S.

Author: MEGAN CERULLO / CBS MoneyWatch
Published: Updated:
Credit: ParentingPatch / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 via MGN

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three families in the U.S. struggled to afford to buy enough diapers for their young children. But while “diaper need,” as it’s referred to, has long been a condition of living in poverty, it has become even more pervasive over the course of the pandemic, according to the National Diaper Bank Network (NBDN), a coalition of 240 member diaper banks — sites that distribute diapers to community organizations — across the U.S.

“The issue of diaper need has existed for a long time,” Joanne Goldblum, chief executive of NDBN, told CBS MoneyWatch. “But during COVID, some of our member diaper banks have seen upward of a 500% increase in people asking for product.”

Network-wide, across all 240 facilities, demand for diapers has increased by about 70% in 2021, according to Goldblum.

“Of course it’s no surprise. So many Americans are struggling financially and this is one thing families need to spend their money on,” she said.

Sufficient supply of diapers for one child can cost a family between $75 and $100 a month, according to NDBN. In 2017, one in three American families could not afford to keep their babies clean and dry, according to the NDBN’s latest report on diaper need.

Effects of the pandemic have made it even harder for families to get their hands on baby products.

A nationwide child care crunch pushed many women in particular out of the labor force, for instance, thereby reducing families’ combined incomes with one parent remaining at home to provide child care.

Rash of price hikes on baby products

In addition, commodity prices have risen as manufacturers grapple with supply chain challenges and worker shortages.

Pampers maker Procter & Gamble, one of the largest producers of diapers in the U.S., in April reported it started hiking prices on baby care products, including diapers “to offset a portion of the impact of rising commodity costs.” The price increases, ranging from mid-to-high single-digit percentages, went into effect last month, according to Procter & Gamble.

Kimberly-Clark, another large player in baby care with its Huggies and Pull-Ups brands, announced similar price hikes on consumer products “to help offset significant commodity cost inflation” in March, which went into effect over the summer.

Even a modest increase in the price of goods can make household items like diapers unaffordable for low-income families.

“The increase impacts families who need diapers, and in the U.S., we allow for prices of commodities to increase but we don’t require pay increases,” Goldblum said. “Given all of this, we are not surprised we are seeing such an increase in need.”

Some families relied on government assistance to pay for essentials like diapers. In July, the parents of 60 million U.S. children began receiving monthly checks through the expanded federal Child Tax Credit, geared toward families struggling to afford basics.

Child Tax Credit helps

Sabrina Smith, a 36-year-old mother from Port Clinton, Ohio, said she spent a portion of her $600 monthly payment on diapers. “Just with diapers, wipes, the essentials you have to buy on a regular basis, it is incredibly helpful,” she told CBS MoneyWatch in July.

The Austin Diaper Bank in Texas has observed a dramatic uptick in diaper need locally, tied to sudden, pandemic-related job losses.

Demand for free diapers has increased significantly since the beginning 2020, spiking during the months of March, April and May. Today, the organization is serving 18% more families struggling to afford diapers every month, compared to early 2020.

“Families we work with say they are playing catch up from what has happened over the last year and a half. Some are back to work but have incurred credit card debt that they are paying off,” said Holly McDaniel, executive director of Austin Diaper Bank. “Day care centers are at capacity, kids are at home, so one parent is home and hasn’t gone back to work yet and their income is lower than it was before the pandemic.”

— With additional reporting from CBS MoneyWatch’s Aimee Picchi

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