Why Diapers Matter When It Comes to Personal Responsibility and Poverty

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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.

 A conservative blogger actually pulled out the “welfare queens” line when writing about it, and a sampling of some of the comments on a Fox News story about the bill included the following:

ReaganCoalitionMember: First get a good education. Then get a good job. Then get married. Then have children. Then don’t expect me to pay for your kids’ diapers! Otherwise you are a leech! Pay for your own diapers. Plan ahead.

bigpup10: If you can’t afford children, don’t have then. Pregnancy is 100% preventable!!!

Dafreder: The other solution is make them clean dirty diappers like my mother use to do if they can’t afford it. Do some work to earn some of these luxuries that working people can afford. I don’t want to hear that you can’t work.


What makes these reactions so frustrating is that they fly in the face of any commonsense approach to “personal responsibility.” As the bill’s text makes clear, plenty of child care facilities will not permit a child to be left there without disposable diapers. According to a report cited by the Los Angeles Times, “A mother working full time earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the study said, would spend more than 6 percent of her gross annual income of $15,080 on diapers.” 

I do believe it is possible for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps—but only if they are not left barefoot while all the people around them have boots.


So we want poor parents to work, yet that requires child care, but child care is often prohibitively expensive, and the children can be left with child care providers only if they have disposable diapers, which are prohibitively expensive, too. It’s like the birth-control-mandate debate all over again. Politicians don’t want people on welfare, but they make it as tough as possible for them to access contraception that will ensure they do not have more children than they can afford. But if they do have children, we won’t help them with diapers.

I believe that America is a great country. And I do believe it is possible for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps—but only if they are not left barefoot while all the people around them have boots. Depriving poor children of diapers reflects a lack of responsibility on the part of government, not a lack of personal responsibility on the part of parents trying to do the right thing.


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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