Diapers are a major expense for any household with young children, running about $75 a month. The cost presents some struggling families with impossible choices. Should we pay the electric bill or buy diapers? They tend to make diapers last longer by changing their children less frequently, which is obviously unhealthy and uncomfortable.
Anything we can do to improve access to these essentials is helpful. Legislators in Connecticut and Illinois are considering offering sales tax relief on diapers. In Connecticut, there is a proposal to exempt diapers from sales tax entirely. The Illinois bill would lower the sales tax on diapers from the 6.25 percent charged on most goods to 1 percent, the rate for food and medicine.
Baby diapers are taxed in most states. Adult incontinence products are more likely to be exempt. There is a reason why sales tax usually does not apply to food or medicine. They are necessities. In what world are diapers not? Of course, the same is true of toothpaste, laundry detergent and many other goods that are essentials for healthy living and are generally taxed.
In Connecticut, families now pay about $4.76 a month in sales tax on diapers. To people who are just scraping by, that's a significant amount. It's a gallon of milk, round-trip bus fare, or maybe baby's first pair of mittens.
Sales tax plays a huge role in the economies of struggling households. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy recently found that the poorest families pay state and local taxes at twice the effective rate of the richest families. The bottom 20 percent of wage earners were paying these taxes at a rate of 10.9 percent while the richest 1 percent paid at a rate of only 5.4 percent.
Across the country, diaper banks, which operate on the same model as food banks, are working hard to distribute diapers to families in need. But with 30 percent of low-income families reporting that they struggle to pay for diapers, diaper banks cannot do it all.
Keeping babies clean, dry and healthy is an enormous endeavor. It requires lots of creative thinking from the non-profit, for-profit and public sectors. Sales tax exemptions will not solve the problem of diaper need, but they are a step in the right direction.