Soapbox

Making diapers more affordable is a big deal

Tisa Kelley, a Sacramento child-care provider, puts away chairs after lunch. Many day care centers don’t accept babies unless parents bring diapers.
Tisa Kelley, a Sacramento child-care provider, puts away chairs after lunch. Many day care centers don’t accept babies unless parents bring diapers. Sacramento Bee file

“It changes people’s lives. If you are low, it raises you up.”

These words came from a 19-year-old girl living in an impoverished village in Kenya who I interviewed while conducting field research after my first year of medical school.

To me, her life really had changed. She was happier, motivated and better able to provide for her family’s health needs. It was all due to one simple intervention: $1,000 in cash from a nonprofit.

As I start working as a pediatrician in California, this woman reminds me that, sometimes, the best I can do as a doctor just isn’t good enough. Sometimes, kids just need cash. This is as true in California as in Kenya.

Among rich countries, the United States ranks No. l in wealth but No. 30 in child income inequality. In our country and in California, one in five children live in poverty. Growing up poor increases the risk of countless health and social ills, including cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, criminal activity and mental illness.

But there’s hope.

The Children’s Defense Fund has shown how we could cut child poverty by 60 percent by investing more in existing policies and programs. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that pediatricians ask parents if they are struggling to make ends meet and then connect them to community, state and federal resources. The research is there. Now we need action. We can act by contacting state legislators to support two bills – Assembly Bills 492 and 717.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in California strongly supports the bills. AB 492, authored by Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez and Jimmy Gomez, would give CalWORKs recipients $50 a month for diapers. AB 717 by Gonzalez would exempt diapers from sales taxes.

These bills would make diapers more affordable for poor families – a big deal since diapers can consume almost 14 percent of their after-tax income. Lack of diapers can force poor families to change their babies less often, leading to painful diaper rashes, urinary tract infections and emergency department visits.

These families can also be barred from most licensed child care centers, which require babies to have a sufficient diaper supply to attend. Stuck at home, babies don’t get the quality early childhood education that can more than double their chance of going to college. Parents must stay home to watch them instead of finding jobs.

We will never know the full extent of lives ruined and societal contributions lost due to not giving all kids a fair shake. Preventing childhood poverty is much more effective than dealing with its future consequences.

I am thrilled to serve as a doctor for our state’s children but recognize that I may not have made it to medical school graduation if I had grown up like the children I interviewed in Kenya or the millions of American kids living in poverty.

The injustice of this gnaws at me, but it also motivates me to support bills such as AB 492 and 717 that would put more money in the pockets of my disadvantaged patients. Because, as I have learned, cash is often just what the doctor ordered.

Jean Junior is a pediatric resident at the University of California, San Francisco. She can be contacted at jeanajunior@gmail.com.

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