Politics & Government

California bill would start nation’s first diaper assistance program

Tino Gauthier is embraced by his mother Shelby Gauthier-Owensby in front of there home on Tuesday evening, July 29, 2014.
Tino Gauthier is embraced by his mother Shelby Gauthier-Owensby in front of there home on Tuesday evening, July 29, 2014. Sacramento Bee file

It was the last week of the month, and Shanique Brown had already spent her $515 in CalWORKs benefits. Other programs would prevent Brown and her 18-month-old son, Armani, from going hungry, but the 22-year-old single mom had no money for a necessity so basic it is often forgotten: diapers.

For an entire week, Brown stayed at home with her son, constantly asking him if he had to go to the bathroom.

“I cried and cried,” said Brown, now 24.

Armani is now potty-trained, but a new state bill seeks to ensure low-income parents will never face the challenge Brown did. If passed, Assembly Bill 1516 would make California the first state in the country to create a diaper assistance program for families on welfare.

The groundbreaking legislation comes with a price tag: more than $100 million annually, according to Jolie Onodera, principal consultant for the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which will conduct the next hearing on the bill Monday.

A study published last year by researchers at Yale found 30 percent of low-income women struggle to pay for disposable diapers and have reused them to make ends meet. Diaper difficulty is compounded by laws prohibiting recipients of food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) from using their benefits to purchase diapers; the child care necessity is grouped with cigarettes and alcohol.

The bill, written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, would address that problem by giving $80 a month to each family that qualifies for CalWORKs and has a child under 2. Onodera said over 120,000 children, about 12 percent of kids enrolled in the program, would receive benefits.

Though she strongly believes something must be done to provide relief for families forced to spend an average of $100 each month to keep their babies dry, Gonzalez acknowledges that $100 million seems like a lot of money to spend on diapers.

“To be quite frank, I am delighted but a little surprised that we’ve gotten it this far,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said she wrote AB 1516 primarily to raise awareness about the issue in order to refine the legislation. She said Gov. Jerry Brown’s office has raised concerns that the item was not included in the budget he signed in June.

If the bill doesn’t pass this year, Gonzalez plans to rewrite it and reintroduce it next year.

“I’m looking so far in the future,” Gonzalez said. “If this is just too big of a ticket, how do I scale back the cost?”

Because no other state offers such a program, the process of drafting the bill has not been simple. Which state program can best provide the diapers and how families should access the benefits are difficult questions, Gonzalez said.

So far, Republican lawmakers aren’t satisfied with the answers the bill offers. Attaching the funding to CalWORKs means diaper relief will come as an automatic cash benefit for qualifying families. Republicans say any new program should include a mechanism to ensure the money is actually spent on diapers.

“At the very least, we’d like to see a caseworker to approve the additional payments to prevent fraud,” said Amanda Fulkerson, press secretary for Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare. No Assembly Republican voted in favor of the bill.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, who opposed the bill in the Assembly Human Services committee, criticized the potential expansion of California’s “disproportionately high welfare state.”

“Instead of expanding our welfare system and keeping millions dependent upon government, we should implement business-friendly policies enabling those out of work to obtain a job and provide for their families,” Grove said in an emailed statement.

Though the arena of diaper politics is a new one, legislators’ dialogue is typical of discussion that arises with every push to expand the social safety net. Conservatives argue the bill is too expensive, and liberals claim inaction is far costlier.

Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, said the true cost of the bill would be lower than estimated, because it removes an obstacle that sometimes keeps poor parents at home. Day care centers typically require parents to drop off disposable diapers with their children. If diapers are out of reach, child care might not be an option, which means holding down a job might be impossible as well. Stone and other supporters claim AB 1516 would help parents get to work and off CalWORKs benefits sooner, thus saving the state money.

Onodera said predicting how many parents would use the benefits to buy diapers and procure child care is nearly impossible. Onodera also noted that any increase in CalWORKs benefits is accompanied by a decrease in food stamps, so she thinks it’s likely families would use at least part of their diaper grant to buy groceries. Neither her pending analysis nor the analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee includes an estimate of the long-range fiscal impact of AB 1516.

Vivian Elkins, owner of Vivian Elkins Day Care in South Natomas, is contracted by the state to provide child care for low-income state employees. Though the parents don’t have to pay for the care, they do need to provide Elkins with at least five diapers a day. They often visit multiple food banks and nonprofit organizations to obtain free diapers.

“By the time they use their gas going around from here to there just to get the diapers, it’s not really financially feasible,” Elkins said.

After 39 years as a child care provider, Elkins believes it is imperative to change soiled diapers immediately to prevent rashes and infection. She currently cares for seven young children, and many arrive at day care in soiled diapers.

Genevieve Levy, programs director for Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, said her organization must carefully ration the diapers it gives to parents enrolled in parenting programs.

“There are certain sizes of diapers that we have to limit to just 10 per month, which is almost comical, because what is that, a day?” Levy said.

A few years ago, clients reported that they often reused disposable diapers by placing blankets or T-shirts inside soiled diapers. In response, the food bank began offering instruction on how to fashion hygienic cloth diapers. But most day care facilities won’t accept those, and laundromats won’t allow families to wash soiled cloth diapers, so disposables remain the best option for many families.

Shelby Owensby, 24, who testified in support of AB 1516 at the Assembly Human Services Committee hearing April 8, said in an interview that she occasionally visited food banks to try to find diapers for her son, who turns 5 next month. But she soon decided the trips weren’t worth the difficulty of arranging transportation, because she could usually get only a few diapers at a time. Instead, she made ends meet with money from her mom.

Though she could scrounge together diapers, she couldn’t escape the stress of doubting she’d be able to.

“Him being my son, he would know when I was stressed out,” Owensby said. “He’d get moody and cry.”

Alison Weir, director of programs at the National Diaper Bank Network, based in New Haven, Conn., said working mothers were less common when most major social safety net legislation was passed in the 1960s. Because they stayed at home, making and washing cloth diapers was no big deal.

Today, about 70 percent of American mothers work outside the home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Female-headed households are also more common, and more likely to be poor. The 2013 census found that 31 percent of families headed by a single woman live in poverty, meaning single moms struggle the most to buy diapers and also have the greatest need for diapers so that they can send their children to day care and go to work.

Weir said she hoped California’s bill, if it passes, might serve as a model for other states to emulate. A federal bill to allow families to use food stamps to purchase diapers has never made it out of committee, so Weir thinks states are the best actors to bring diaper change.

“If California passes, everybody can see how it works,” Weir said. “It might take longer, but it’ll probably gain traction more state by state than going through the federal government.”