Why They Can’t Just Use Cloth: Diapers and the Gendered Politics of Providing Basic Needs

By Dr. Jennifer Randles

September 27th, 2021 kicked off the tenth annual Diaper Need Awareness Week in the United States where one in three families with infants and toddlers cannot afford enough diapers. City, state, and federal legislators across the country endorsed proclamations recognizing diaper deprivation as a problem and applauding the work of a growing national network of diaper banks and pantries that distribute free diapers to families and partner organizations. Privately funded diaper banks have proliferated in the United States since the 1990s and now number in the hundreds. Collectively they distribute millions of disposable diapers a year, and yet meet only about five percent of the estimated need. Diaper bank staff on the front lines of diaper advocacy face consistent criticism. What could possibly be controversial about providing financially strapped families with a basic need every baby has?

For starters, diapers are not officially recognized as a need. Diapers are not covered by existing public aid policies, including SNAP and WIC food assistance programs. Categorized along with hygiene and cleaning products, diapers are an “unallowable” non-food expense. Like other items deemed discretionary rather than medically necessary, diapers are still taxed in most states. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find any parent or caregiver who considers diapers optional. Although welfare cash aid can be used to purchase diapers, it’s not coincidental that the number of diaper banks in the United States has grown exponentially since 1990s welfare reform. Many fewer families now receive cash aid, and the value of that aid has dwindled. The average $80 monthly diaper bill for one child would alone use 8 to 40 percent of the average state benefit through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

But there’s another important reason that diaper bankers face consistent criticism and stalled efforts to pass policies that would provide public diaper support: cloth diapers. In my recent article in Gender & Society based on interviews with 40 diaper bank staff, most of whom were involved in diaper policy advocacy, and 70 mothers who experienced diaper need, I discovered a key case of how gender, class, and race inequalities intersect to impede policies promoting access to basic needs. Many diaper bankers shared stories of policymakers, community members, and other stakeholders who responded to requests for diaper support by asking Why don’t they just use cloth?

Embedded within this seemingly simple retort are numerous sexist, classist, and racist assumptions about easy individual solutions to structural problems like diaper need. Whereas policymakers are still predominantly white, affluent, older men unlikely to change many diapers, much less struggle with diaper need, the parents I interviewed were mostly mothers of color living in poverty who had tried cloth diapering but found it to be more expensive, labor-intensive, and time prohibitive. As Leslie, a Black 28-year-old mother of one, explained to me,  “That’s probably why programs don’t cover diapers, because they think cloth are free. But then you have to spend on washing, detergent, water, electricity, and all the work and worry. You still have to pay for it in some way.” For these reasons, cloth is the diaper type used by a very narrow segment of American families – typically married middle-class homeowners with an in-house washer and dryer and a stay-at-home parent. Most daycare facilities will not accept cloth diapers, and many states have laws prohibiting washing them in public laundry facilities.

Disposable diapers became almost universal during the last three decades of the twentieth century, the same time period when the labor market participation rates of mothers with children three and younger doubled from around 35 to over 70 percent. Now that over 95 percent of babies in the United States wear disposables for most or all of their diapering needs, mothers of color feared that having their children seen in public in anything but a “normal” disposable diaper – such as a cloth diaper presumed to be a “rag” – could invite suspicion about their parental fitness. As it turns out, parents most likely to struggle with diaper need can’t just use cloth diapers because the ability to do so is now profoundly influenced by middle-class, white, androcentric privileges.    

This is a case of what I call gendered policy vacuums, which refer to when gender disparities and ideologies result in policy gaps around caregiving and provisions needed to satisfy basic human needs for sustenance, health, cleanliness, and dignity. Gender policy vacuums have emerged around numerous related struggles, including food insecurity, housing instability, and most recently, childcare deficits in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The American ideology of individualism tasks mothers with responsibility for ensuring their children’s well-being through labor-intensive and time-consuming parenting practices, such as breastfeeding, home-cooking, and cloth diapering. But such directives devalue and render invisible feminized care labor, especially that performed by low-income mothers of color.

As mothers shared with me, the same social, economic, and political conditions that intersect to create their diaper need also prevent them from using cloth diapers as a way to meet that need. But the assumption that poor women’s labor can readily solve problems of gender inequality  – as the Why don’t they just use cloth? retort suggests – rationalizes lack of public redress for gendered inequalities and resultant policy gaps around caregiving. As one diaper bank founder, Janine, said of her continued efforts to advocate for diaper policies: “We expect so much more of poor mothers, so why not cloth, many ask. For families for whom that works, great! But why do we expect the poorest parents to do the most work? I want people to have what they need. Most of them need disposable diapers.” Let’s hope that our policies will eventually acknowledge that need, paving the way for public support for this basic need so easily taken for granted – unless your baby doesn’t have one.  

Jennifer Randles (@jrandles3) is Professor and Chair of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. She is the author of Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America and Essential Dads: The Inequalities and Politics of Fathering. She is currently writing a book on diaper insecurity, the diaper bank movement, and diaper politics.

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