Joanne Goldblum remembers Jackie, a mentally retarded mother with two children, as the first person she’d ever seen dry and reuse a disposable diaper. Instead of toilet paper, Jackie kept a communal towel by the toilet. Goldblum still cringes when she tells the story. As a social worker for the Yale Child Study Center, Goldblum worked with families who were chronically homeless, families like Jackie’s. “They were living in a way you couldn’t believe was happening in America,” Goldblum says.
Goldblum set out to teach Jackie about the importance of cleanliness in keeping a family healthy. But Jackie insisted that she could not afford toilet paper. “Honestly, I thought she didn’t understand,” Goldblum says. So the social worker checked to see if Jackie could use Food Stamps to get toilet paper, only to find that the Food Stamps program pays for nothing except food. Then she turned to the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides supplemental nutrition to babies and pregnant women, and received the same answer: food only. Food pantries received donations of toiletries on occasion but never enough to meet the needs of all their clients.
Jackie, it turns out, understood perfectly. No government program would help her buy the products she needed to keep her family clean. Living in New Haven, Conn., where the rent for a two-bedroom apartment approaches a minimum-wage worker’s monthly gross income, she could never spare the cash for diapers, toilet paper or soap. Jackie was not the only mother in Goldblum’s caseload with that problem. One apartment Goldblum visited was dotted with piles of garbage. There was no trash can because there was no money to buy it. Children wore foul-smelling clothes because there was no detergent to wash them with. And in family after family, disposable diapers were being reused. Mothers would dump out the solids and put the diapers back on the babies.
Goldblum spent the next two years learning that the cost of cleanliness was quicksand, pulling already poor families down into intractable poverty. Parents who could not keep their homes or children clean would lose their children to the foster system. Day care centers require families to provide disposable diapers, and without day care, parents cannot work. Goldblum learned about the problem and railed about it. A lot of that railing happened at dinnertime. One night her husband, David, looked across the table and said, “Your diaper thing: We could just do it.”
Friday, October 03, 2008