Chelesa Presley is deeply familiar with the struggles of young families, first from her years as a social worker and now from running a nonprofit in one of Mississippi’s poorest regions. She’s used to the questions about car seats, nursing and colicky babies, but paying for diapers is always the chronic and most-pressing worry.
“I see parents not putting anything on their babies because they don’t have diapers,” she said. “I’ve seen people use shopping bags with some rags in it. I’ve seen T-shirts. I’ve seen people keeping the diapers on longer than necessary, and the diapers sag down when the babies walk.”
As founder and executive director of Diaper Bank of the Delta, Presley is part of a grass-roots support network at the forefront of a crisis: Requests have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled at some locations, social services workerssay, with diaper shortages and families lining up for hours in some communities. Meanwhile, the cash and in-kind donations that keep diaper banks afloat have slumped, and their mostly volunteer workforce has shriveledsince the pandemic.
Diaper need is an often-overlooked measure of Americans’ economic reversals, said Joanne Samuel Goldblum, chief executive and founder of the National Diaper Bank Network. There are so many people “who do not have enough money to meet their basic needs, and what we’ve found is that diaper need is a window into poverty.”
Historically, most diaper bank clients live below the poverty line, a federal threshold capped at $26,500 a year for a family of four. One in 3 U.S. families could not afford diapers even before the coronavirus outbreak. But once the pandemic set in, and millions of Americans lost their jobs, the nation descended into a recession that disproportionately affected women and low-wage earners, leaving many to contend with eviction, debt and food insecurity. The initial round of federal stimulus kept 17 million people out of poverty, but millions remain vulnerable while waiting for additional relief.
“The people who lost their jobs first were retail and hospitality workers, which actually employs a lot of families that diaper banks serve and tend to be women,” said Audrey Symes, a volunteer at Good+Foundation in New York.