By Mike Shaver, President and CEO, Brightpoint

In Illinois, the often-unseen challenge of diaper insecurity is placing a significant burden on families, a situation exacerbated by the soaring costs of diapers. With prices increasing by over 30% since the start of the pandemic, what many consider a basic child-rearing necessity has become an unaffordable luxury for too many. An estimated one in two families nationally now struggles with diaper insecurity. This economic pressure is not just about hygiene. It’s a matter of public health and economic stability, affecting a family’s day-to-day life and the broader societal structure.

One poignant story from one of our home visiting programs in Southern Illinois brings this issue to light. A mother of four, with her youngest still in diapers, faces monthly anxiety over whether she has enough diapers to keep her child clean and dry. She meticulously calculates the exact number needed each month, but any slight change — a sickness or a step backward in potty training — can throw off her entire “diaper math,” leading to a scramble for more diapers. She describes the ordeal as a “whole side job in itself,” highlighting the complex decisions families must make, from delaying diaper changes to conserve resources to creating makeshift diapers in desperate times. 

Although federally-funded early care and education programs like Head Start provide diapers free of charge to qualifying families, many childcare providers do not. Moreover, those childcare centers can turn away families who do not have diapers for their children. A recent national study found that one in four families experiencing diaper insecurity had to miss an average of five days of work or school per month due to a lack of diapers.

We brought the idea of addressing diaper insecurity within childcare programs to Illinois legislators because we want to advance solutions that create strong families and don’t turn challenges into life-altering crises. The Illinois General Assembly is considering a proposal that will alleviate families’ financial strain by enabling childcare providers in the state’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to purchase supplemental diapers. To qualify for Illinois’ CCAP program, an applicant must be employed or in school and have a family income that does not exceed 225 percent of the federal poverty level, or $67,500 a year for a family of four.

The legislative proposal will provide child care providers with funds to provide 50 diapers per month for children in full-day programs and 25 for those in part-time care, ensuring that financial constraints do not prevent children from attending childcare and parents from working or pursuing education. This move is particularly crucial for the “ALICE” demographic — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — families who earn above the poverty line but still struggle with the high cost of living and child care. These families, which can have incomes up to 275% of the poverty level, often find themselves ineligible for other benefits yet still unable to afford basic needs.

Additionally, childcare programs participating in the Child Care Assistance Program could not turn children away when they run out of diapers, a first-of-its-kind policy in the nation. This legislative step represents a significant acknowledgment of the issue’s urgency and the need for systemic support.

Complementing this bill, The Governor has recognized the importance of impacting diaper insecurity through his $ 1 million diaper program proposal.  This program, aimed at providing free diapers through the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), is a testament to the state’s commitment to addressing diaper insecurity head-on. 

Together, House Bill 545 and Governor Pritzker’s diaper program, represent a holistic approach to supporting Illinois families by ensuring that everyday challenges do not escalate into crisis situations. When families have economic stability, the risk of child neglect or maltreatment drops significantly. 

The proposed legislation and diaper program directly tackle the intertwined issues of public health, economic stability, and childcare access by tackling diaper insecurity in Illinois through different strategies, ensuring families have access to diapers and can go to work or school. This dual approach signifies more than policy change; it’s a reflection of a deep commitment to uplift and support every family, recognizing the profound impact such foundational support has on our society’s overall health and equity. We are committed to this work because, as an organization that began 141 years ago by our founder to find homes for children, we now understand that a child’s greatest asset is their family.

By addressing diaper insecurity head-on, Illinois is leading with compassion and pragmatism, setting a precedent for how we care for our children and their caregivers. In doing so, we can begin to dismantle the barriers that prevent families from thriving, fostering a healthier, more equitable Illinois for all.

Mike Shaver is President and CEO of Brightpoint, a child and family service organization, formerly known as Children’s Home & Aid, serving nearly 30,000 children, youth, and families a year in 67 Illinois counties.