Cloth Diaper Data: What Do We Know About Poverty & Accessibility?

“Cloth diapers are typically not an option for the poor who often lack working washers and dryers.” – St. Louis Post Dispatch

Today’s post is focused on the data we now have about cloth diaper feasibility and washing when a family is living on an income below the poverty line.

As awareness grows around diaper need, also called the diaper gap, the conversation about cloth diaper feasibility for these families has been growing – particularly among diaper bank providers. Supporters of cloth diaper usage see the money savings argument as having weight. Cloth diapers are less expensive than disposables and, for families in need, they can be accessed for free through diaper bank programs. Over time, using cloth diapers and not buying disposable diapers will add money back into a family’s personal economy, a savings that continues to grow with each additional child.

When this argument is presented, there are two common points of resistance. The first is a concern over access to washing facilities.  Do families living at the federal definition of poverty have access to a washer and dryer? The second concern surrounds the time and commitment involved in doing laundry. Is there time available to wash diapers?  Are families committed to doing the extra loads of laundry needed to cloth diaper their baby?

In 2011,  my company, Cotton Babies, started a diaper bank that has grown into an often referenced diapering resource for American families.   As the diaper bank project grew, we began hearing more questions from other diaper banks about cloth diaper feasibility. Questions primarily surrounded how families living in poverty access washing facilities. Since our database of program applicants exclusively reflects families who receive government assistance and use cloth diapers, we decided to look at our data to find some answers.

When a family lacks washing facilities, use of a laundromat or borrowed washing facilities is an option but presents challenges that may be difficult to address, such as whether or not the laundromat allows cloth diapers to be washed as well as time available to go to an alternate facility. Some families will also hand-wash diapers.

Unfortunately, as seen in the quote above, a lack of access to washing facilities has been established (without supporting research) as the default truth for the majority of families living in diaper need. We found the opposite to be true.

The data source was a database of applications to Share The Love, a diaper bank program.  The analyzed data represents applications from over 1300 families.

Applicants self-selected into the form and represent a random sampling of the applicant population in all 50 states. The majority receive WIC, SNAP or both. 97% of applicants reported receiving public assistance. A significant percentage (95%) reported a washer and dryer in their home or apartment. Only 2% reported hand-washing laundry and 3% reported washing in a laundromat or at a family member’s home (for a total of 5% without direct access to a private washer/dryer).  Comments by applicants reflect a commitment to doing cloth diaper laundry, an understanding of how cloth diapers can help them, and a desire to be able to fully meet their baby’s diaper needs.

A baby is changed, on average 7 times per day between birth and age two. Disposable diaper banks have limited resources. A 2013 Yale study about diaper need indicated that a limited supply of diapers available to families who can’t buy their own diapers may contribute to the misuse of disposables. It also showed that some disposable diapers are reused (air dried or wiped out and put back on a baby). While disposable diaper banks are essential and must be part of the solution, fully and safely meeting the needs of every impoverished baby through disposable diapers cannot be achieved without the additional resources provided by cloth diapers to families who have access to washing facilities.  Safely and fully diapering a child requires a full supply of diapers, either cloth or disposable.

So how do we address the washing question? Three out of four families who are low income or poor have a washer & dryer in their home, according to the Washington Post.  While 75% have washing machines, 95% of those who applied to our cloth diaper programs owned a washing machine or had access to a washing machine. The combined data available show most low income or poor families have access to washing facilities.  Additionally, the increase in the percentage of families applying to a cloth diaper program who did have washing facilities over the national average may indicate that families with washing facilities who are low in-come are inclined to seek out help from a cloth diaper bank.

100% of applicants reported doing laundry.

Childcare options are also critically important to diapering families. A cloth diaper blog (Diaper Wrecker) analyzed current-at-the-time daycare regulations and found that 90% of states (all but five) allow cloth diapers to be used in daycares. Current regulations regarding the use of cloth diapers in daycare can be researched through the Licensing Regulations Database provided by Department of Health and Human Services  The Real Diaper Association has created a guide to help facilitate a discussion about cloth diapers with childcare providers.

What about energy, water, and detergent? BabyGearLab estimates lifetime energy costs of cloth diapering one child at about $50. The cost of water is also low. On average, including detergent and excluding energy, a family will spend $5-$7 per month to wash diaper laundry at home.  A recent study of water costs in 30 cities showed a worst-case scenario in the city with the most expensive water in the nation where the cost of washing cloth diapers is still less than half of the cost of disposables. This cost estimate assumes that only cloth diapers are washed in each load and an increase in laundry load corresponding to full-time cloth diaper usage. This cost is likely lower as typical in-home usage patterns may reflect less frequent washing than recommended by brands. Because cloth diapers are small and could be washed with other loads of laundry – it is possible that there would be no change in water consumption or household cost – even in Santa Fe, the city with the most expensive water in the nation.

Reusable cloth diapers can safely and inexpensively take a baby all the way through potty training, replacing the thousands of disposable diapers otherwise needed to care for that child. Cloth diapers empower a family, replacing a solution that leaves a family always needing more help. While not every impoverished baby can be cloth diapered, not every impoverished baby must be disposable diapered.

How should businesses, non-profits, and the media engage with these questions? Based on the data reviewed for this article, it is probable that a family living in poverty can use and wash cloth diapers. It is this author’s opinion that it is the responsibility of businesses, non-profits, and the media to use empowering language. The implications of using disabling language are significant (Example: “Cloth diapers are typically not an option for the poor who lack working washers and dryers.”). A reader of that sentence may not understand that this is, in fact, not apparently a true statement and avoid helping a family in need with cloth diapers.

Do you need diapers?  Share The Love, currently has many one-size cloth diaper changes available, free, for qualified families experiencing diaper need.  Families in need can visit to apply for assistance with diapering their children.  If you would like to purchase cloth diapers for a family in need, please visit Cotton Babies and add a note to your order that it should be designated for a family-in-need. Cloth diaper kits are placed with households with access to washing facilities and provide reusable, safe diapers exclusively to families who cannot otherwise afford to purchase disposable diapers.

Do you have a story to share?  Are you a family using cloth diapers because you can’t afford disposables? Tell your story in the comments. Share this post!

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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.