Opinion

Why every American baby deserves a fresh diaper — courtesy of the U.S. government

Uncle Sam needs to do some changing

"It's time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us," President Obama said in his recent State of the Union address. He then requested tax breaks for childcare and advocated for expanding access to paid parental leave and sick leave — important steps to be sure. What he missed, however, was poop.

As his $80 billion agenda winds through the government, there is something else we can do to help working parents, one that would help millions of working families: make diapers more affordable.

We needn't look far. A new law proposed by Connecticut State Rep. Kelly Luxenberg (D) would exempt both diapers and feminine hygiene products from the state's sales tax. A similar law proposed by Illinois State Senator Martin Sandoval last month would drop the tax to just 1 percent.

"Diapers are a necessity for every baby in Connecticut," Rep. Luxenberg told Patch. "I was shocked when I learned that this essential product is taxed. There is a double-standard when baby diapers are taxed and adult diapers are not under the medical exemption."

If the Connecticut law goes into effect, it will save families around $300 a year, and the Illinois one around $45 per year. It may not be much, but it is a step towards rethinking what is considered a necessity (generally not taxed) and what is considered a luxury. Food and medicine are exempt from sales tax in most states, so why not diapers?

According to the National Diaper Bank Network, one in three families struggle to buy diapers for the nearly six million children under the age of three living in poor or low-income families today. Diapers cost up to $100 per month per baby and cannot be purchased with food stamps. The price can double or even triple for those who purchase them at local convenience stores rather than big box discount stores — which is common for those lacking access to or unable to afford transportation. Cloth diapers are not a viable alternative because laundromats don't allow customers to wash them, and daycares don't want to deal with them.

So what do poor families do? For one, they keep their children in soiled diapers as long as possible. This makes for unhappy babies and, inevitably, unhappy mothers. A Yale study from 2013 found that mothers without an adequate diaper supply are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, which can in turn have long term effects on their children. Also, without diapers parents can't send their children to free early childhood education programs, which, according to one study, makes them 2.5 percent more likely to go on to higher education.

The big problem with the way diapers — and similarly, feminine hygiene products — are distributed and sold is that they were long considered a women's problem, and women's problems have long been considered something women should deal with on their own. Because young children's needs were considered women's needs, our babies have long been neglected too.

But now we find ourselves in the middle of a massive shift in which things that were traditionally seen as women's private matters are now being viewed as public concerns. This is partially due to the slow realization of gender equality in the U.S. But it's also because in this age of dual-breadwinner and single-parent households, there is no longer a woman around to take care of all the woman's stuff. Procuring diapers, along with childcare, and, yes even tampons, is not something women should be expected to just figure out on their own any longer.

We need to make sure diapers are available to every child in this country that needs one, whether through the use of subsidies by way of tax breaks, the ability to use public assistance funding like food stamps to buy diapers, or direct handouts at daycare centers for low income families.

That lawmakers are finally coming around to this is surely a sign of hope.

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