When is a necessity not a necessity? When it’s a product used by half the population every month for 35 to 40 years, but never even once by the other half. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about menstrual supplies. Pads and tampons cost women up to $120 a year—and that’s not counting pain relievers like Midol or Advil. Over a lifetime, it can add up to as much as $4,500.
Menstrual supplies have been in the news thanks to attempts by activists in several states to repeal the so-called tampon tax—the sales tax levied on menstrual supplies in 36 states. The rationale for applying sales tax to menstrual products is that they are luxuries, not necessities, which any woman can tell you is ridiculous. These are not products women can simply choose not to use, like perfume or cosmetics. It is indeed insulting that women, who already earn less than men, are taxed for an essential product that only women use—a tax, let us not forget, originally levied by male lawmakers, and sometimes preserved by them, too. Four states have dropped the tax in recent years, but when California legislators voted to do the same, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it: The state, with its proposed $190 billion budget, just couldn’t do without the $20 million women paid in each year. (He vetoed getting rid of the tax on diapers, too.)
Dropping the tax would be a fine symbolic gesture, but a more immediate problem is that menstrual products aren’t covered by food stamps or by WIC coupons (neither are soap, toilet paper, or the other basics of modern hygiene—as if people down on their luck don’t deserve to be clean). Imagine the stress this induces in poor women: Will I have enough to get through those days? What if I cut back on changing my pad and bleed through? Every year in the United States, one out of four women struggles to come up with the money to pay for menstrual products, and one in five low-income women misses school, work, or some other commitment because she didn’t have adequate supplies. You don’t hear much about it because eew, periods. It’s a lot like the stress of paying for diapers (also not covered by food stamps), which a Yale study showed was connected to depression in low-income mothers and grandmothers.
The National Diaper Bank Network, which provides millions of diapers to poor parents and grandparents and has done so much to make diaper need a political issue, wants to do the same for menstrual supplies. On May 1, the network launched the Alliance for Period Supplies, with about 50 allied programs across the country. The program’s goal is simple: to make menstrual supplies free or affordable to all. “Talking about diapers in relation to poverty is not easy,” Joanne Samuel Goldblum, executive director of the Diaper Bank and founder of the alliance, told me when we spoke by phone, “but once you start the conversation, people get it. Periods are the next step.”