Obama joins states in bid to close the 'diaper divide'

Changing diaper disparity

There's a rash of diaper debate going on nationwide.

President Barack Obama wants to change the nation's "diaper divide" by helping low-income families cope with the cost of diapers. At the same time, efforts are underway in at least three legislatures — California, Connecticut and Tennessee — to exempt baby diapers from state sales taxes, while a similar effort in Utah failed.

"Diapers are really expensive," Obama said Friday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, while outlining a private effort aimed at getting diapers to low-income parents.

A White House blog, called "The Diaper Divide," said nearly 1 in 3 American families struggle with affording enough disposable diapers for their babies. The blog, referring to "the diaper disparity," said low-income families sometimes are paying 14 percent of their entire incomes just for disposable diapers.

The administration estimates disposable diapers cost about $936 per child a year. In some cases, lower-income families are paying double what higher-income families pay because diapers can sometimes be cheaper at warehouse stores, but those stores are not always available to the poor due to transportation issues or membership fees.

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The lack of diapers for infants and toddlers can be a serious health issue for poor families, Cecilia Munoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, wrote in the White House blog.

"Young children can end up hospitalized with problems like urinary tract or staph infections," she added. "There is also no federal assistance for purchasing diapers, unlike other essentials like food or health insurance."

The president's proposed 2017 budget sets aside $10 million to test a pilot program with government agencies and nonprofits on how to best get baby diapers to struggling families. "But unless Congress acts, we don't have a program to help struggling families buy diapers for their children," Munoz said. "So, we're getting creative and using every tool we have to help solve this problem."

The White House's diaper effort involves harnessing social media and the Internet. Also, nonprofits such as Covenant House will be able to make bulk purchases of diapers, saving 25 percent on their cost, and distribute them to needy moms and families.

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Online retailer, for example, will assist nonprofits in buying, receiving and storing the diaper orders. First Quality, the maker of the Cuties-brand diapers, offered to design new lower-cost packaging and pass along the savings to nonprofit groups. Kimberly-Clark's Huggies brand plans to donate an additional 2 million free diapers to the National Diaper Bank Network, and will match any public donations, up to 1 million diapers, provided through a Huggies' rewards program. Donations from Huggies are in addition to the 20 million diapers it already committed to the network.

"If you think about this, it is probably one of those areas that falls through the cracks," said Aric Melzl, Kimberly-Clark's Huggies brand director and a board member of the network.

At the same time, Pampers-brand maker Procter & Gamble pledged to donate 1 million diapers on top of its ongoing diaper program with Feeding America. And the Honest Company, co-founded by actress Jessica Alba, said it will donate up to 1 million of its diapers to groups such as Baby2Baby, a nonprofit focused on helping low-income families.

P&G's Pampers is the No. 1 brand in diapers and the Cincinnati-based company's biggest brand. Euromonitor estimates the domestic diaper market at $6.2 billion annually and worldwide just under $43 billion, with Pampers having a 45 percent share of the U.S. market followed by Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark with a 35 percent share.

As for state efforts, proposed sales-tax exemptions in California and Connecticut for diapers would also apply to certain feminine hygiene products. Last month, a Utah House committee rejected a similar bill in committee. Tennessee has a pending bill to reduce the state's sales taxes on diapers and tampons, although the outcome is uncertain.

Backers of the California measure say the sales tax exemption for diapers could save low-income families $100 per child a year. What's more, a second bill in California would create a "diaper-needs" voucher of $50 per month for low-income families and individuals in a state welfare-to-work program. The two bills have already passed the state Assembly and are expected to be heard in the state Senate this summer.

California has one of the highest base sales taxes in the nation, 7.5 percent, and with additional use taxes in some communities that rate can reach 10 percent. Some lawmakers in the Golden State have even suggested there's a need to eliminate sales taxes on toilet paper. The California State Board of Equalization, which studied the impact of the state diaper bills, estimates that only 7.5 percent of babies now use cloth diapers.

At least seven states already exempt diapers from sales or use taxes: Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Massachusetts.