Why Diapers Matter When It Comes to Personal Responsibility and Poverty

A California bill that would subsidize diapers could help low-income families remain in the workforce. So why are conservative politicians rejecting it?

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Generic image. Thinkstock

The term “personal responsibility” has long served as one of the favorite rallying cries of conservatives. Want to rile up an audience? Shout about how lack of personal responsibility among the poor is hurting hardworking, taxpaying “real” Americans.

As a testament to the outsized role “personal responsibility” has long played in debates about poverty, it is worth noting that the bill often referred to as “welfare reform” is actually called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (pdf). Although plenty of my more progressive friends consider the signing of that bill to be one of President Bill Clinton’s low points, I do not.

I consider welfare reform necessary, and I consider personal responsibility an important part of ending the cycle of poverty. But I consider good policy an important part of ending that cycle, too. Which is why I am consistently baffled when conservatives and other personal-responsibility proponents oppose measures that would help the poor become more self-sufficient—measures like Assembly Bill 1516 in California.

The bill has been introduced to correct a quirk in how federal law is interpreted. Under government-subsidized programs for the poor, such as California’s Special Supplemental Food Program, diapers are not covered for purchase. Instead they are categorized as optional luxury items, like cigarettes.

Now, to be clear, I very much consider cigarette purchases a matter of personal responsibility, particularly if you are relying on my tax dollars to support yourself. (And relying on your fellow citizens to pay for your health care, but that’s another conversation.) I don’t believe that anyone on government assistance should be purchasing cigarettes or alcohol. But last time I checked, diapers are not what you’d call a luxury item if you have a young child.

The more I learned about this issue, however, the more I realized that the lack of coverage of diapers is more than a mere inconvenience for poor mothers. It can be the difference between pulling themselves out of poverty or not.

As the bill’s text explains:

(a) Existing federal law classifies diapers with cigarettes, alcohol, and pet food as disallowed purchases under CalFresh and the California Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

(b) However, low-income parents cannot take advantage of free or subsidized child care if they cannot afford to leave disposable diapers at child care centers, a requirement for most child-care centers.

(c) Without access to child care, these parents are less able to attend work or school on a consistent basis, leading to increased economic instability and a continuation of the cycle of poverty.

The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, would be the first in the nation to close the diaper loophole, yet it is considered extremely unlikely to become law. The reason? In the state Assembly, no Republican voted for the measure, and it is expected to be stalled in the state Senate this week. It has been widely derided by conservatives.