Why Low-Income Parents End Up Paying More For Diapers | KERA News

Why Low-Income Parents End Up Paying More For Diapers

Mar 14, 2019

Diapers Etc. hands out around 10,000 to 12,000 diapers per month to families in need, for free. For those families on the financial edge, the necessary baby-care staple would be a crippling cost otherwise.

Last month, 600 people came through the door of the Far East Dallas nonprofit.

"There's been tears of despair, of folks who just feel like they have let their kids down, that they don't know how to make ends meet to take care of the kids that they love," co-founder Justin Barringer said.

He runs the diaper pantry out of an old church. On distribution day, parents get 50 diapers per kid. That will last a typical toddler a week.

An infant, maybe five days.

» A Constant Concern

Erica O'Brien of East Dallas visits Diapers Etc. on the last Saturday of every month. She's mom to two kids — 8-year-old Colton and 16-month-old Skylar.

She also works as a teacher's assistant at a nearby elementary school. Right now she has a job and her husband doesn't. The $1,500 a month she brings home has to cover all four of them.

"It's very difficult for rent and all the bills and everything," she says. "It's living pretty much paycheck to paycheck right now."

Parents of children who aren't yet potty-trained will tell you: One of the biggest headaches is paying for diapers. Kids grow, so they always need the next size up. And don't forget about baby wipes.

Diapers are taxed — and parents can't use federal assistance programs like SNAP or WIC to buy them.

One-year-old Skylar still needs six or seven disposable diapers a day. O'Brien says she's come very close to running out.

"I have actually gotten down to like one diaper left for her, and there was still, like, another week before I could go get diapers."

On that day, a friend fronted her some — and said not to worry about paying her back.

When O'Brien does buy diapers, she can't afford very many at a time. That costs.

"I mean, it's like a package of 25 for like $11, or a box of 100-and-something for less than $20," she says. "So you end up having to pay a lot more having to buy the little packages."

» Ripple Effect

Justin Barringer, co-founder and executive director Diapers Etc. He runs the nonprofit out of an old church. "Parenting is hard [even] when you have enough money to get your kids everything they need," he said.
Credit Courtney Collins / KERA

Barringer says not having enough diapers has a terrible ripple effect on poor families:

  • If babies aren't changed frequently enough, they can get severe diaper rash or urinary tract infections.
  • If parents run out of diapers altogether, babies and toddlers can't attend daycare.
  • If they can't attend daycare, that means mom or dad can't go to work.

"Parenting's hard," Barringer said. It's "hard [even] when you have enough money to get your kids everything they need."

» How The Poor Pay More

Barringer gets his diapers from Hope Supply Company, which funnels baby essentials to nonprofits throughout North Texas. CEO Barbara Johnson echoes what mom Erica O'Brien said about the challenges of buying enough diapers at a time.

"A wealthier family can buy in bulk," Johnson says. "They can go to Sam's, they can go to Costco and they can buy at a better price than a poor family that has to go to the 7-Eleven to pick up a few diapers."

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Everything's more expensive in small quantities, including formula and food. What's extra tricky, though? Diapers are taxed — and parents can't use federal assistance programs like SNAP or WIC to buy them.

"Diaper-need is actually crippling the poor in America, because it's so expensive to afford to keep a baby in clean diapers," Johnson said.

» Why Not Just Use Cloth Diapers?

A half century ago, cloth diapers were the economical standard. Today, Johnson says, cloth is a luxury of the wealthy.

Even if a low-income family had a good supply of cloth diapers:

  • A lot of them don't have washers and dryers at home
  • Most laundromats won't allow people to wash cloth diapers
  • Most daycares won't accept them, either.

Barbara Johnson, CEO of Hope Supply Co., surrounded by Cutie Pants diapers. Hope Supply Co. funnels baby essentials to nonprofits throughout North Texas.
Credit Courtney Collins / KERA


Erica O'Brien likes to take her kids to a McDonald's playground near her house on bad-weather days. At a recent outing, Colton burned energy by zipping down the slide like a pro, while little Skylar toddled cautiously through the tunnels.

O'Brien grinned at her daughter through the playground tunnel window. It's obvious she's doing her best.

But running out of diapers, she says, might push her to the breaking point.

"I would probably cry if I ran out of diapers for her and I didn't have a way to get any more."

A worry many parents carry with them every day.

KERA’s One Crisis Away project focuses a spotlight on North Texans living on the financial edge. Explore more stories.