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Asking the Right Questions

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The first peer-reviewed study on diapers -- and how the lack of them can harm babies and families -- was just published in Pediatrics. I was proud to be a co-author and have spent a lot of this past week responding to reporters asking about our rather amazing findings.

Our study showed that one in three low-income moms struggles to afford diapers and that diaper need was strongly associated with symptoms of depression and other mental health problems among these women. There's ample research demonstrating that a mother's mental health can have profound implications for her child's development. One of the best questions I kept getting asked was: Why hasn't anyone looked at this before?

We've established all sorts of depressing statistics showing what growing up in poverty does to a child's prospects of success in school and in life. But researchers have been less focused on looking at the day-to-day realities of living with very few resources in America.

We know that chronic absenteeism in school has terrible long-term consequences for children. I am interested in the nitty gritty. How many kids are missing school because they don't have clean clothes? I'd be interested in studying what kind of access to washing machines and ability to afford detergent the average low-income family has.

I'd like to know how many families are challenged to afford toothpaste and how many cannot get to a grocery store that sells healthy food. I like to know whether having transportation to a library affects reading habits. I'd like to know how many foot problems are caused by not being able to afford a pair of shoes that fits properly.

There is nothing abstract about poverty. It's an in-your-face reality that never, ever lets up. It touches people a thousand different ways every day. That gives us a thousand opportunities to help, to ameliorate the effects of poverty on families. Am I saying that we don't need larger reforms to reverse the trend of growing income inequality in this country? Of course not. What I'm saying is that right this minute there are many ways that we can make a big difference in people's lives with fairly simple, straight forward assistance: a diaper, a bookmobile, free cleaning products. These are excellent opportunities for targeted community-based action -- and they are areas where research is sorely needed to track the extent of the problem and the effectiveness of solutions.

Pick your passion and start recruiting others. Diapers are where I've decided to concentrate my work, and I am always on the lookout for smart, caring people who'd like to come on board. You can get yourself a wonderful, quick introduction to diaper need here. Think about it. Maybe it will inspire you to ask a few good questions of your own.