To get through the month, Dolan typically buys a box of diapers from Costco and another from Safeway before heading to a local diaper bank. These purchases can rack up a bill of more than $80, which is more than 10% of what she gets monthly from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a federal program that gives cash to those in need. Dolan has found herself scouring her car for a spare diaper to hold her over before she picks up more from the diaper bank.
“I’m rocking this,” she said. “It’s just the financial part where I’m, like, nail-biting.”
If the Legislature passes Senate Bill 5838, which would need to move out of the House by March 4, Dolan and other families who are on TANF and have children under 3 years old could get additional money to help pay for child-related needs like diapers.
Dolan’s family is one of tens of thousands in Washington participating in TANF, which gives out money that recipients can put toward living expenses, including the cost of clothes, transportation, food and shelter. A family of three without any income can get $654 per month in TANF grants, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Families in Washington with $6,000 or less in resources are eligible for the program and may be required to participate in WorkFirst, which helps people find jobs.
Nearly 20% of children in King County have lived in families that have struggled to afford formula or diapers “at least some of the time since the child was born,” according to 2019 data from the Best Starts for Kids Health Survey. The National Diaper Bank Network estimates that providing diapers for one baby can cost $70 to $80 a month. The COVID-19 era has offered little reprieve: In 2021, diaper manufacturers increased the cost of baby products.
Most senators have embraced the bill, though it drew pushback from state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, who wondered what happens to families who are in need but not receiving TANF benefits. State Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, who sponsored the bill, is confident it will benefit Washingtonians struggling to afford diapers.
“I think it’s a real solution to help people who we know have the greatest need,” Nobles said.
Parents may not be able to access child care programs that require a sufficient diaper supply, and families may change their children less often to conserve diapers, according to a news release from Nobles’ office.
How it works and why now
About 7,000 households in Washington could receive help from the diaper subsidy, according to WestSide Baby, a nonprofit founded in Seattle that collects and distributes donated items for children.
Diaper costs rose by almost 12% nationally between the end of 2019 to June 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal. When COVID hit, stores stocked with items like toilet paper and diapers were cleared out by those who could afford to stock up and hoard, said Toni Sarge, the public affairs director of WestSide Baby.
"For families who buy things by the paycheck, they couldn't buy diapers for their babies," Sarge told Crosscut.
WestSide Baby's diaper distribution numbers jumped during the pandemic, from 1.5 million diapers in 2019 to 2.4 million in 2020. Sarge said the group distributed 2.5 million diapers in 2021.
The team could distribute diapers all day, but Sarge said that would still not be enough to meet the inaccess to basic needs some families face. WestSide Baby has backed policies to alleviate diaper needs, including pushing for a diaper subsidy and a measure to exempt diapers from a sales tax.
The exact allocation of the diaper subsidy is unknown: The initial push called for a $125 monthly stipend, while proposed supplemental budgets from the House and Senate put the amount in the $50 to $100 range.
Eligible families who also participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would experience decreases in their benefits because of the increased TANF money: With the $125 allocation, WestSide Baby estimates families receiving TANF and SNAP would see a net increase of about $40 to $60 per month.
This isn’t the first time Washington has tried to address diaper access. In 2021, the Legislature approved a budget that allocated $5 million to nonprofits distributing donated diapers, and considered a bill that would exempt diapers from a sales tax. Sarge of WestSide Baby said that legislation, which did not move much in 2021 and was reintroduced this year, is less popular because of Washington’s reliance on the sales tax, which accounted for the general fund’s largest tax revenue source, according to a 2019 legislative guide.
Reservations about TANF
One former TANF recipient felt conflicted about the plan to give more money to families across Washington.
“Part of me is really excited that families can get that extra funding and then the kind of cynical part of me is, like, it could have helped people 20 years ago …,” said Rachel Anderson, a Sequim City Council member and mother of three. “It’s really frustrating how late to the game some legislation feels.”
Anderson, who is also on the board of the Sequim Education Foundation and Olympic Community Action Programs, described her time in the program as traumatic as a result of negative experiences with her case workers. The money she got while on TANF helped, but it was not enough to cover all of her family’s expenses.
Sequoia Dolan, left, and her daughters Zayah, 2, and Jaeleah, 10, play video games at home before dinner, Feb. 25, 2022. Dolan is completing a degree in early childhood development and eventually plans to open a daycare. Because she is a TANF recipient, her classes and books are free. She also gets about $2,000 in financial aid every few months. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)
Some have questioned the practicality of the program’s requirements.
“Someone has to be at such an extreme state of poverty that they need to not only be making extremely little money, but then they need to prove that they're working a number of hours while making that very little bit of money,” ProPublica’s Hannah Dreyfus said on NPR in January.
Sequoia Dolan doesn’t plan to stay on TANF for much longer, but she wants to get through school. She is completing a degree in early childhood development and eventually plans to open a day care. Because she is a TANF recipient, her classes and books are free. She also gets about $2,000 in financial aid every few months.
Dolan works 10 hours a week, but fears working more could put her TANF eligibility 一 and consequently her coverage for school 一 at risk.
“I know that it’ll be easier for me when I graduate and get my degree,” she said. “But right now I feel so stuck.”
The state’s average monthly TANF caseload had been declining since the 2011 fiscal year, when it totaled 65,140. The number started creeping back up more recently. Washington had an average monthly caseload of more than 25,000 in fiscal 2019, more than 26,000 in fiscal 2020 and more than 29,000 in fiscal 2021.
Because of her experience with domestic violence, Dolan has been able to extend her time with TANF, which is typically available to recipients for five years. House Bill 2048 would expand who qualifies for more time in the program, allowing extensions, for example, for those in need of substance use disorder treatment and people temporarily prevented from working.
The Legislature’s take
Support for the Senate bill has been generally positive in the Legislature, but not unanimous.
“This is crazy,” said Fortunato, the Auburn senator who was the only one to vote no on the bill before it moved to the House. “I have absolutely no problem helping young families, especially families with children…. It only applies to TANF people. So what happens if you’re right on the edge?"
Fortunato suggested sales tax exemptions for items like baby clothes and diapers as an alternative.
He also worried about misuse of the funds: Though the money is intended to give families a cushion so they can more easily afford diapers, it does not have to go toward the item. But Nobles, the bill’s sponsor, had faith that most would use the money appropriately.
“I believe that if you help people and provide them with the resources that they need, they will make the right decisions,” she said, acknowledging this might not be the case across the board while remaining optimistic. “That is what the majority of people will absolutely do.”
If passed, SB 5838 is expected to go into effect in late 2023.