The Real Reason Diapers Are So Expensive

Baby lays in a white diaper, legs in the air.
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In a recent article for the Tampa Bay Times, writer Kathleen McGrory asked a simple, yet perplexing question: Why are diapers so expensive?

As a father of three, I have asked myself that same question more times than I can count — particularly after going to change a diaper, and discovering that my kid’s business has gone all the way up their back. (Honestly, the only thing worse than a blowout is realizing how much you paid for a diaper that didn’t contain your child’s poop.)

On average, diapers cost about $0.25 each. And while that doesn’t sound like a lot at first glance, anyone with a baby at home knows that a child will blow through (sorry for the pun) as many as five to 12 diapers in a mere 24 hours. Naturally, children use fewer diapers once they get older, but at the same time, the bigger the diapers, the greater the cost. Using the numbers above, that’s $21 per week, or $84 per month. According to McGrory, “for a single mom or dad working full time at minimum wage, the cost can consume 6 percent of total annual pay. For the lowest-income parents, it’s as much as 14 percent.”

But where exactly is this money going, and why such a high cost for something so basic?

Diapers may be a relatively short phase for families, but manufacturers are cashing in big time on those first stinky years. In fact, the diaper industry is worth $9 billion in North America alone. Believe me, I paused looking at that number, too. But according to McGreory, “Given the technology that’s inside them, they are super cheap.”

Because as crazy as it sounds, diapers in 2018 are pretty high-tech. They’re built to absorb a large amount of fluid in a small amount of space and keep it contained, all while being disposable and soft on the child’s bottom. To make this happen, scientists have developed super-absorbent polymers, linked molecules of acrylic acid into chains, and packed it all inside a “breathable” back sheet that lets vapor out, but keeps liquid in.

The technology is designed to keep babies healthy. But as a low-income parent, it can feel like being forced to buy a BMW when all you really need is a Ford. Ultimately, this is the rock and hard place many low-income parents find themselves in. The search for affordable diapers can be difficult — the market really only produces diapers that are very high, or very low, when what most families need are a functional low-cost diaper. McGrory interviewed one man in this very situation, who claimed that he couldn’t afford name brand diapers, and was left buying diapers at a local dollar store. Those diapers gave his child rashes.

What a horrible situation to be placed in.

To complicate matters, there’s the social shame that comes along with buying generic diapers. When I first became a father, I wanted to make sure my child had the best of everything, regardless of personal sacrifice. I was a young college student and father, and although I couldn’t afford name brand diapers, we bought them regardless of the cost.

Many low-income families run into this same situation, spending money on name brand diapers and forgoing personal needs such as nutrition, or larger family needs such as rent. And to further complicate the situation, most government support programs don’t include diapers. For example, you can’t buy them with food stamps, and if you are receiving cash assistance, it can of course be applied, but it takes a large dent out of other family needs.

If you’re still reading this and wondering, “Why not switch to cloth diapers?” that certainly may be a plausible answer for some. But anyone who’s attempted to drop their child off at daycare with cloth diapers understands there’s a huge roadblock there. Most daycare providers won’t use them, and insist upon disposables.

Sadly, affordability is not at the top of most diaper manufactures priorities. But then again, why should it be? They’re interested in turning a profit with a 100% disposable product. I get it. Still, there’s a reason why experts are calling the need for affordable and functional diapers a “silent crisis.”

Back in 2016, the White House published a blog post called “The Diaper Divide.” In it, the Obama administration urged Congress to provide $10 million to help solve the problem, arguing that “many parents are struggling to afford diapers and making choices no one should have to make.”

Ultimately, Congress didn’t act, and we’ve been stuck in the same place ever since.

So what is a low-income parent to do? That is the million dollar question (or in this case, the billion dollar question). Many are stuck between a rock and a hard place, by needing diapers, but being unable to find affordable ones, and feeling social pressures to make sure their children are in a name-brand product with a strong reputation.

On the bright side, there are a few things in place to help fix the problem. Many states have diaper banks that can assist low-income families struggling to meet their needs. There are also multiple non-profits across the U.S. that are taking up the charge to help. And several states are helping on a local level, too. But the honest truth is, low-income families are still struggling in this area, and considering the scale of the problem, there just isn’t enough being done to solve it. Unless the cost of diapers can be brought down, better lower-cost alternatives are established, or legislation is approved to help, this silent crisis could very well continue.

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