Opinion: 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.

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Babies not having enough diapers to stay clean and dry should be everyone’s issue. For the people in the back who say, “If you can’t afford children, don’t have them,” I’d ask where your humanity is. Babies don’t ask to be born into this world; they cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And for those who say, “I used cloth diapers on my four children,” you might consider that your diapering and laundry options are not available to everyone.

As a lifelong Bay Area resident, I’ve come to view our region as having two distinct realities. On the one hand, 63 billionaires and 285,000 millionaires live here. On the other hand, 1,400,000 residents live in poverty.

Diaper bank programs can be highly impactful on a large scale. Public funding allows organizations such as Help a Mother Out to leverage economies of scale. In fiscal 2023, the nonprofit had $3.6 million in operating expenses. Through 75 partners, we distributed over 13 million diapers, reaching 7,500 babies monthly, with cost savings of $5.2 million to families.

Given the state’s budget crisis, diaper bank funding has been relegated to budget dust. I believe this is a case of being pennywise and pound-foolish. Removing the cost of diapers from a family’s monthly budget is akin to universal basic income for babies. I call that economic justice. This problem is solvable. Who will bail out the babies?

Lisa Truong is the founder and executive director of Oakland nonprofit Help a Mother Out.

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