Current research at the Yale Child Study Center offers a novel look at this problem, literally from the other end. In a study published in Pediatrics in 2013, researcher Megan Smith showed that 30 percent of families living in poverty report diaper need.
Extensive research has shown that when parents are fully emotionally present with their infants, they support development of emotional regulation, cognitive resourcefulness and social adaptation. But what if her baby is screaming in a dirty diaper, uncomfortable or in pain, and a mother can't reliably have access to a clean one? The stress of this predicament may make emotional regulation, both for parent and child, impossible. Smith concludes:
Although a majority of studies have examined family socioeconomic status as income and educational and employment status, emerging research suggests that indicators of material hardship are increasingly important to child health. This study supports this premise with the suggestion that an adequate supply of diapers may prove a tangible way of reducing parenting stress, a critical factor influencing child health and development.Next weekend, Smith will be presenting her research at the Austen Riggs Center, in conjunction with a community diaper drive sponsored by the Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute.
Wen's current Globe piece quotes Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress; "Cash is what actually matters for these families, as a baseline, before you can even start talking about supports and services."
The point of juxtaposing these two studies is not that we should distribute diapers in place of cash. Rather it raises the question of whether it makes sense to invest in infants, rather than waiting until problems of emotional and behavioral regulation are so great that children meet diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric disorder.
The infant brain makes as many as 700 synaptic connections per second. By investing resources in infancy, not only with diapers, but also such things as quality child care, paid maternity and paternity leave, and identification and treatment of perinatal mental health problems such as postpartum depression and anxiety, we literally have the opportunity to grow healthy brains.
The current SSI system seems to be an investment in illness. In contrast, concrete support with clean diapers, as well as the broader support of parents and young children, is an investment in prevention and health.