Poverty, Diapers, Washing, Empowerment, and Privilege

We need to talk about privilege and how it influences the media’s assumptions about families living under the burden of poverty.  Eventually, we’ll get to how those assumptions influence social program design, but today, we’re just going to look at the media and a recent set of articles.

Last week, Emily Badger and Juliet Eilperin wrote an article for the Washington Post looking at the higher costs experienced by low-income families when buying basic necessities like diapers.  They often buy in smaller quantities and, as a result, pay more for their diapers than a family who can make larger bulk purchases.  The basic premise of the article was correct.  The poor do pay more for basic essentials.

The higher price is a micro-economic reality related to the basic elements that go into the costs of packaged product.  Packaging is a significant portion of the cost of a good.  Fewer items in the bag or box make the overall cost per piece higher, resulting in a higher price to the consumer.  Unfortunately, those realities have an impact on anyone who  buys in smaller quantities and that impact is felt the most by families living on a low income.  The article went on to suggest that legislation would be the solution to this problem and focused on how difficult it has been to get legislation passed – or even taken seriously – that would provide a diaper benefit to low income families. Appropriately, and I use that word because it’s becoming more and more clear that the general public has a better idea of how to solve this problem than the media, many of the commenters on the article suggested that these families consider using cloth diapers.

A few days later, Badger published a follow up article targeted specifically at the commenters encouraging a cloth diaper solution to diaper need. In her article, she referenced a 2013 American House Survey to show how many families living on less than $40k/year had a washer & dryer in their home.  According to the information she reported, about 3 out of 4 of these families have washers and dryers.  Rather than seeing a statistic that shows that most families actually have the capability to wash diapers in their home, she instead wrote, “many poor households simply don’t have the one thing you’d need to use cloth diapers in the first place — a washing machine.”  Badger went on to present this (now apparently negative) statistical indicator as a major obstacle to a cloth diaper solution.  After presenting cloth diapers as an impossibility, she closed her article with this:

“But this debate gets at the larger point that solutions we often come up with for the poor are informed by the assumptions of people with more money. And forgetting that other households may not have a washing machine is a privilege of people who can take theirs for granted.” – Emily Badger, Washington Post

Ms. Badger, we really need to have a chat. You are a well-spoken woman with a platform on the Washington Post. You clearly care about low income families and you have a sense of injustice.  You used your platform to tell a broad group of your readers, for whom you have no demographic data, that they are privileged and elitist because they think cloth diapers are a rational option for solving diaper lack for babies living in poverty. You based your opinion about the apparent incapability of a demographic to wash diapers on data that actually proved that your position was, in fact invalid.  This  point wasn’t lost on your audience.

Have you considered, for a moment, that the legislative solution currently being considered by the House does not completely resolve diaper need? By providing fewer disposable diapers than would be necessary, it might actually encourage harmful diapering practices… like leaving a baby in a diaper too long or reusing a disposable diaper.

Remember, people with babies do a lot of laundry no matter what income bracket they fall into. Cloth diapers have come a long way since the 1950s. For the most part, cloth diapers look like disposables. Very few people use pins or rubber pants, and I don’t know of anybody who soaks diapers in buckets of poopy water.  The census data also makes it clear that we have washing machines… not washboards.


The census data also makes it clear that we have washing machines… not washboards.

When you’re doing laundry at home, it takes minutes to throw a load in the washer or transfer it into the dryer.  The only scenario where laundry might take hours is in a laundromat – where multiple machines allow all of the loads to be washed or dried at the same time rather than the serial process we follow at home with one machine. We might procrastinate about doing it at home.  We might have a clean mountain and a dirty mountain.  We might pile it all in the car and go to the laundromat.  We might go to our mom’s house, but, no matter where it’s done, families with children have to do laundry somehow.  Privileged or not.  It’s all dirty when they are little.  It takes all of us time.  Working, in-school, stay-at-home, rich, or poor.   And, honestly, comparing the hassle of doing a load of laundry with the time involved in taking public transportation is like saying that it’s not right for someone to have to tie their shoes because you can afford Tieks.  There’s no rational comparison.

We do have a statistic represented who lacks an in-home washer and dryer.  While I fell into that statistic and washed diapers in the basement of my apartment building, it is reasonable to believe that not everyone can do what I did.  Nobody ever actually complained when I washed my diapers, but I chose to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.  It’s kind of hard to undo a washing machine full of diapers just because someone raised an eyebrow.  That said, I do believe that these are families who need all the help we can give them… and that help should be in the form of a supply of disposable diapers that will safely and entirely meet their baby’s diapering needs.

Is it too much to ask the media to simply acknowledge the differences between the two groups?  Can we simply state facts rather than making gross overstatements or recasting positive data as negative? When the data is looked at neutrally, it becomes clear that cloth diapers can actually completely resolve diaper need for most of these families.  Cloth diapers empower a mother to take care of her own baby’s most essential need without anyone else’s help.

Empowering women… and it results in a safely diapered baby.

I will remind you that some of us actually KNOW what diaper need is because we’ve lived it. Please don’t assume that you know who we are and what we are capable of achieving for our families. We know how to do a load of laundry, and, believe me, it isn’t anything like taking a bus across town.

Jenn is the Founder and CEO of Cotton Babies. She holds an Executive MBA from Washington University. She was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Category for the Central Midwest Region in 2011. Among many other awards, she recently received a 2017 YWCA Leader of Distinction Award for Entrepreneurship. Jenn holds many patents on various inventions in a number of different countries and is listed as one of 50 Missourians You Should Know. She is particularly fascinated by languages, chickens, and children (she has four) when she’s not reading economics journals. Jenn offers mentorship to product developers at any stage in the journey from idea to shelf.