California’s budget is in freefall. Who will bail out the babies?

Boom and bust budget cycles are the norm in California. This year, we have an exceptional budget shortfall of at least $38 billion.

The budget crisis means renewed funding for high-impact programs such as the state’s diaper bank network is in jeopardy. In 2019, California became the first state to allocate funding for diaper banks. This funding has facilitated infrastructure investments and distribution of over 160 million diapers, benefitting over 1.6 million babies. Thanks to state funding, Help a Mother Out, the Bay Area’s diaper bank, distributed nearly 38 million diapers, reaching over 338,000 babies.

The budget is in freefall, but there is hope. Assemblymember Liz Ortega, D-San Leandro,  is sponsoring a $23 million budget request to continue funding. But unless legislators and the governor agree to include this funding in the budget, the loss will be felt exponentially, impacting hundreds of thousands of babies and families. Additionally, the infrastructure built over the last five years to support this statewide network is in danger of disappearing forever.

According to the National Diaper Bank Network, “diaper need” is the lack of a sufficient supply of diapers to keep a baby clean and dry. Nearly 50,000 Bay Area babies and over 375,000 babies statewide live in households struggling to meet basic needs.

Beyond the numbers are heartbreaking stories. A Cupertino mom told her social worker that she gave her daughter less to drink so she did not have to change the diaper as much. A mom in East Palo Alto went to jail for stealing diapers; her kids went into foster care. A San Francisco mom tore up old t-shirts to use as diapers. And there are countless stories of desperate mothers air-drying diapers after shaking out excrement to reuse.

I was shocked when I learned that federal assistance programs (e.g., food stamps/WIC) do not cover diapers. Disposable diapers are required to attend childcare; childcare is a requisite for work and job training. Diapers are expensive, up 48% retail since 2020, costing a family up to $135 per month/child. A lack of a reliable supply of diapers causes maternal depression. Staying in soiled diapers hurts babies, resulting in toxic stress, and can lead to health conditions such as severe diaper rash and urinary tract infections.