October 24 2011

Taxpayer-Funded Diapers?

Carrie L. Lukas

On Friday, Rush Limbaugh described legislation that seems more likely to have come from The Onion than from a real Representative's office. But in fact, the “Diaper Investment and Aid to Promote Economic Recovery" (Yes, that's the DIAPER Act, some staffer is very proud of having developed that acronym) was introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro earlier this month, and currently has 11 cosponsors.

The legislation isn't quite as crazy as Rush described—or, at least, most of the craziness that Rush describes has been in place for more than two decades. This legislation amends the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 1990 to allow funds that are already going to support daycare for lower-income Americans to be used to provide diapers. And if the government is going to be in the business of paying for babysitters, than it's not really that much of a leap to pay for diapers too.

Yet Americans concerned about the reach of the federal government should rightfully question how we got to a place where the federal government is in the business of paying for diapers and wipes for kids across the country.

Obviously, these are necessary items and paying for them can be a burden for any parent, particularly for low-income parents. But is the best solution to this problem really for our federal government to collect taxes from all Americans and then dish it all back to the states as block grants with a pile of rules dictating exactly how the funds must be used, including if diapers qualify as a childcare expense? Surely this is an issue that states and localities can tackle, if private entities, including charities, really fail at the job.

The most troubling aspect of this type of federal micromanagement is that it clearly rewards some decisions over others. A lot of parents—including from low-income families—make sacrifices to keep a parent at home. Members of extended families often take over daycare responsibilities so parents can work, and so that the baby can still be looked after by a loving relative. There's an implicit penalty when government supports one decision—the use of official daycare centers—over another. That's simply not fair.

And government's ruling that diaper-purchases will get taxpayer support also has ripple effects in the most personal decision parents make. I'm a loyal disposable-diaper purchasing Mom myself, but I know other moms who have gone the eco-friendly reusable diaper route. Others work really hard to potty train their kids young in part to cut down on diaper expenses. But take away the expense of diapering, and fewer parents are going to bother with these more challenging alternatives to disposables. You can be sure that diaper use will go up when diaper costs go down.

Even if as a society we decide that we are going to provide a taxpayer-financed safety net to help poor parents, surely direct assistance is superior to this kind of wasteful, inefficient, government meddling.

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