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Low-income moms shouldn't have to worry about getting diapers for their babies

ShareBaby, a diaper bank, will distribute its one millionth item since it was founded four years ago. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

Imagine not being able afford to buy enough diapers for your baby. When they run out, you wash soiled ones in bleach, or keep a urine-soaked one on your baby longer than is healthy. Or you embarrassingly ask to borrow one from a neighbor. In the most desperate cases, you shoplift, even though you know it’s wrong.

In the United States, 1 in 3 low-income moms face the dilemma of wondering where they will find their next clean diaper.

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Anyone who has raised a child remembers the countless times a day baby required a change. Most babies need 6 to 10 diapers a day at a cost of $70 to $80 per month, according to the National Diaper Bank Network. It can be expensive, and many moms just can’t afford it.

So they make do the best they can and struggle with intense feelings of guilt knowing they are putting their child at risk of developing a severe diaper rash or a urinary tract infection. They fight off thoughts that they are somehow a bad parent.

A Yale School of Medicine study found the cost of diapers causes a higher level of stress than any other basic need parents struggle with in caring for a child. It is a major cause of depression and anxiety.

Contributing to the problem is that there is no dedicated federal program to help with the costs, like there is for food and housing.

Some non-profits have helped fill the void. Diaper banks, such as ShareBaby in Baltimore, have cropped up around the country collecting donated diapers that they give to families.

These banks, which act much like food banks, have been a savior to many moms. But a more permanent and universal solution is needed.

Currently, the federal program for Women, Infants and Children does not cover the cost of diapers. The federal Temporary Assistant to Needy Families program provides some cash assistance — generally well below $1,000 — to families who are working but can’t make ends meet, according to the national diaper bank network.

But the money isn’t designated for just diapers and is also used to cover other basic expenses, such as utility bills, clothing and transportation. And nationally only 27 percent of low-income families qualify for and use the program.

The federal government needs to make diapers part of the items that moms can buy under the WIC program, which provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods and nutrition education to low-income families. The program, which serves 135,000 Marylanders each year, is meant to make sure children are getting nutrition rich foods that will keep them healthy. For instance, over time the program has helped lower the rates of anemia.

A fresh, clean diaper is just as important to a child’s health. Think how many infections — and cranky babies and moms — could be soothed by providing an adequate supply of fresh diapers. Not to mention the health care costs that come with taking a baby to the doctor or an emergency room to treat an infection that is easily preventable.

Moms will also be able to better bond with their children once the stress of worrying about diapers is removed. Early bonding is critical to the long-term emotional development of a child.

The state of Maryland could also pass its own legislation to cover the costs of diapers. California became the first state to do this when it began offering a $50 a month voucher to families to cover the cost of diapers for children under the age of two in 2017.

Sadly, federal efforts to provide financial assistance for diapers have been met by complaints about tight budgets and tired stereotypes about irresponsible, untrustworthy welfare moms.

Worries that moms would somehow pocket the money suddenly outweighed the health needs of babies and infants. Welfare moms were portrayed as not caring about the health of their children — an old argument conservatives too often fall back on during discussions about funding public assistance programs.

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One piece of legislation that would have allowed some child care centers to use federal block grants to provide diapers to needy families was criticized by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh because it “gives new meaning to the term pampering the poor.”

As if diapers are a luxury item akin to a lush bathrobe or fluffy slippers rather than a necessity families can’t go without.

Access to diapers has economic ramifications as much as health benefits. Many daycare centers require families to leave diapers for their children. If they don’t have any, they may miss work to stay home with their children.

Until lawmakers find the heart to put children’s health before mundane stereotypes, we applaud the diaper banks filling the need. ShareBaby hopes to give out a million diapers and other baby items this year. Many babies — and their moms — will avoid unwanted health problems because of it.

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