Why can’t you get diapers and tampons on government assistance?

16 million children in the United States are currently living in poverty. That’s 22 percent of US children. 18 million women in the United States are currently living in poverty. That’s one in seven. Neither of these figures has been adjusted for race (people of colour are more likely to live in poverty), disability status (disabled people are more likely to live in poverty), or geographic location (people in rural regions are more likely to live in poverty). The United States has a poverty problem, and it is more extreme for some populations than for others. This should be socially unacceptable, as should the current state of government benefits and social supports to assist low-income people in the United States with meeting basic needs.

The needs gap with social benefits in the United States is really appalling. People who rely on government benefits do not receive enough to support themselves or their families and consistently have to make choices between food, utilities, and other basic needs since they cannot accommodate them all. This is ridiculous. And it’s difficult to pinpoint just one gap in the benefits paradigm that’s particularly infuriating, but here are two: People do not receive diapers or tampons through government benefits, and they cannot pay for them with programs like SNAP (funds through TANF can be applied to anything, but they’re usually eaten up by rent, utilities, and food that SNAP won’t cover).

For babies, fresh diapers are a really critical need. It’s not just about whether a baby is stinky and uncomfortable, but the fact that prolonged exposure to an unchanged diaper can generate rashes (an issue that happens even with babies who are regularly changed!) and these can lead to serious infections. Parents who cannot access a steady supply of sufficient diapers are forced to go longer between changes. That means their children are more at risk of infections and potentially serious complications. Babies, especially infants, can go through a lot of diapers — along with supplies like new clothes for large-scale accidents, wipes, and so forth.

These aren’t luxuries or nice things to have. They are basic needs for healthy infants and children. Yet, on SNAP, baby supplies are classified exactly like cigarettes, as verboten territory. You can’t buy a pack of Camels or Pampers on government benefits. Food banks have and hand out diapers sometimes, as do well baby centres and other organisations, but their supply is dependent on grants, donations, and other efforts — it’s not always possible to cover all infants and children, and staff need to think about the needs of the whole community, which means everyone may get sent home with partial supplies to avoid sending some people home with no supplies.

Diapers should be covered by government benefits, as should wipes, diaper cream, and other basics. That this is even up for debate is a shocking testimony to the way that mothers and children are regarded in US society — Republicans are oh so very eager to protect the precious foetus, but as soon as it becomes a baby in need of a fresh diaper, they’re out of there, exactly like a deadbeat parent. They’ll force you to carry a foetus to term, but they won’t give you to the social supports to help out once you get there.

Similarly, menstruation supplies are also made unavailable through government benefits programmes. People who menstruate need a regular supply of pads and tampons, and they need to be able to change them frequently, also for health and comfort reasons. Many menstruators can recall at least one occasion where they’ve been forced to wait too long and it’s been extremely uncomfortable, or has resulted in humiliating and frustrating leaks — especially those who bleed heavily, or have underlying pelvic health issues. Moreover, a failure to regularly change pads and tampons can expose people to health risks. While the dangerous formulations that caused toxic shock syndrome have been outlawed, people can still get inflammation, infections, and other serious complications if they don’t change out their pads and tampons.

Yet they, too, are not allowed to buy them on government benefits. No diapers, no pads, no cigarettes, because apparently all three are equivalent. That leaves many people stringing out their supplies as long as they can, a particular problem for people who bleed heavily, who have cycles shorter than 28 days, or who bleed for more than 4-5 days. Shelters, food banks, and other groups provide menstrual supplies when they’re in stock, but they’re not always available, nor are they available in needed quantities. Those same individuals may actually be experiencing health problems leading to irregular bleeding, but they can’t get health care to address the issue — thanks for defunding Planned Parenthood, Republicans!

Some good-hearted liberals suggest that the solution to shortages of menstruation and babycare supplies is reusable products. From an environmental perspective, products like cloth pads, menstrual cups, and cloth diapers absolutely make sense, and are a better ecological choice for many parents. However, they are also a privileged choice. It’s not just the initial outlay of cash (remember the econopack problem), but also the fact that many families don’t have laundry facilities, or stable homes to hand wash supplies (and you really, really want to make sure that cloth products are thoroughly washed and disinfected), and it can be difficult to find safe places to change, wash, and store menstrual cups. This, all these kind-hearted campaigns to ‘just hand out free cloth supplies or menstrual cups!’ ignore the realities of living in poverty in the US, and the fact that for people struggling to survive in the short term, disposable diapers, tampons, pads are simply the best option.

Let’s start by providing people with the necessities they need to survive right now. Then let’s start by raising the standard of living so all people can live safely in an inhabitable home with reliable access to food utilities, and other basic needs. Then we can start talking about environmentally-friendly choices, okay?

Image: Fresh Diapers, Terry Dye, Flickr