"One mother, working as a cook at a hospital, told us that because of the diapers she received that morning, she would be able to go to work that afternoon since her son could now attend daycare."
That's a note that my organization, The National Diaper Bank Network, got from one of our partners, The Diaper Train at Saint Saviour's Center, who just received a large shipment from our founding sponsor, Huggies.
When you tell people that you are in the business of providing diapers to parents who cannot afford them, you frequently hear: Those parents should get a job.
In most cases they are working — or trying to. But low wages mean that they struggle to support their families, no matter how hard they work. Childcare can be difficult to arrange for the most fortunate among us. For low-wage workers and their children, childcare tends to be low-quality and hard-to-find.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United just came out with a report on what getting childcare is like for moms who work in restaurants. They found that childcare isn't set up to cover schedules that don't conform to traditional business hours and that it is prohibitively expensive, eating up 35 percent of mothers' weekly wages. I'd add that there are other costs: including providing diapers, lunches and transportation to and from childcare. Mothers in the study spent an average of 53 minutes to commute to childcare and then to work.
Because restaurant schedules change from week-to-week or even day-to-day, moms were often unable to take desirable shifts that fell outside their childcare arrangements. Most restaurant workers do not get paid sick time for themselves or to take care of family members, so a child's ear infection usually means losing a day's pay.
When childcare is hard to find, parents resort to all sorts of arrangements that are less than ideal. Here's what one of my co-workers told me about growing up with her waitress mom: "I got burned once when one of the fryers bubbled up. I was supposed to stay in the back booth and color while Mom worked, but I got bored and would go talk with the cooks. She felt tremendously guilty about that burn. She felt guilty about taking me to work, about leaving me home alone, about trusting me to some less-than-reliable relatives. But even as a kid, I knew she was doing the best she could."
Working in a restaurant is not a temporary job that someone struggles through before going on to something better. This is the kind of job that people do long-term in America. In May 2013, restaurants added 38,100 jobs, 20 percent of all jobs created in the private sector. If you are lucky enough to be working in this economy, the chances are increasing that you're working in a low-wage job without benefits or any guarantee of continued employment.
So what can we do about it? We can start by providing support for quality, accessible childcare that covers hidden costs such as transportation and diapers. We can raise the minimum wage for tipped and non-tipped workers. (The federal minimum wage for workers who receive tips is only $2.13. Any server will tell you that there are down times when they do not make tips.)
We can acknowledge reality. More than 10 million working Americans fall below the poverty line. "The poverty line," it should be noted, is a ridiculous phrase. The federal poverty level for the family of four is just over $23,000. Feeding, housing and getting healthcare for four people is a struggle for workers who earn far more than that.
The working poor are not only working, they're doing some of the hardest jobs out there, including restaurant work, construction and farming. They deserve better, and so to their children.
This week, the National Diaper Bank Network co-sponsored Rally4Babies, an event that emphasized how critical a child's first years are to brain development. Early learning opportunities are essential, and kids who don't get them begin school way behind their peers. Many never catch up.
Every kid deserves to begin school ready to learn. Every parent deserves to know that while they are hard at work their child is in a safe and rich environment. Providing that isn't some kind of handout. It's simple justice.