One of the most publicized, least popular tax nuances in America is beginning to crumble this week. The so-called tampon tax—or, rather, the fact that menstrual hygiene products are not exempt from sales tax—is history in Chicago, where the city council unanimously voted on Wednesday to classify pads and tampons as medical necessities, not luxury items. The day before, the New York State Assembly passed a similar bill, also with a unanimous vote. Making women pay extra for their periods is a stance no smart politician seems willing to take.
The revolt against the tampon tax is a worldwide movement: Canada became the first country to exempt menstrual hygiene products from its sales tax last June, and British women are bleeding through white pants in protest of the products’ taxation in the EU. As I write these words, Prime Minister David Cameron is lobbying against the tax at the EU summit in Brussels. Several other U.S. state legislatures, including those in Wisconsin, Utah, Ohio, Michigan, California, and Connecticut, are considering proposals like New York’s this year. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maryland, and New Jersey already exempt the products, but every other state with a sales tax classifies tampons as luxury items or non-necessities, which makes them subject to the same tax as chocolate-covered pretzels, snap bracelets, and iPads.
Arguments against the tampon tax practically make themselves. Since necessities make up a larger proportion of poor folks’ spending, sales taxes can be considered regressive; they make it even harder for people in poverty to eke out a comfortable, dignified living. And inconsistencies in state tax codes abound: Some states, like Connecticut and North Dakota, don’t tax pads meant for incontinency, but still tax pads meant for periods. (The former, but not the latter, are classified as medical goods.) The idea that tampons and pads are not “necessities”—a category that includes mustard, food coloring, and Fruit Rollups in New York—may be a relic from the days before tampons and disposable pads, when most women used washable strips of cloth to absorb their menstrual fluid. Few women continue along that route today. Periods involve bodily fluids, which carry implications for public health and sanitation. If that’s not a medical need, what is it?
But the fight to exempt menstrual products from sales tax, easy as it’s proving to win, may be misdirected. From a state’s perspective, the taxes garnered from menstrual hygiene products add up: The California state legislator who introduced the state’s proposed anti–tampon tax bill estimates that California women pay $7 per month for menstrual products, and menstruate for about 40 years. That means about $20 million in taxes from tampons and pads per year for California. But each individual person pays a relatively tiny tax on each box of tampons. Let’s take Tennessee, which has the highest rate of combined state and local sales tax in the U.S.: 9.45 percent. Using California’s estimate that women pay $7 per month for tampons, Tennessee women pay about 66 cents in tampon tax per month. That’s $7.94 per year—not a small amount for someone living in poverty, but not a huge benefit over the course of a year, either, once the tax relief comes.
In a Washington Post opinion column, Catherine Rampell pointed out that ending the tax on tampons isn’t a particularly efficient way of helping poor people who menstruate, since it gives “a break to billionaires” who menstruate as well. Instead of carving item-specific exemptions from the sales tax, she wrote, states should just give more cash to the poor. This argument might not sway tampon-tax advocates who care more about helping poor women afford necessary products than about milking billionaires for a few cents each month (especially if states can make up for the lost tampon-tax revenue with increased demands on those billionaires). But Rampell’s right—a direct cash transfer would be a better way to address the unfairness of the sales tax on menstrual products.
It’s hard to get any legislature to pass an increase in cash benefits for the poor, though. Here’s a more politically feasible idea: The government should make menstrual products eligible for purchase with food stamps or Medicaid. In most places, it’s far easier to get food stamps than cash assistance; some poor women already end up trading their food stamps for tampons at willing bodegas, paying extra for the convenience. The Department of Agriculture may prove unwilling to use its food-stamp funds for non-food items—but if menstrual products are truly a medical necessity, as an increasing number of U.S. jurisdictions claim they are, they should be covered by Medicaid. Food stamp cards would be the easier route, since they’re already accepted as tender at grocery stores that sell menstrual-health products, but it wouldn’t be too hard to make it so a woman could take her Medicaid card to a pharmacy counter along with a box of tampons or pads, just as she would to pick up prescription drugs.
For poor people, menstrual products shouldn’t just be tax-free—they should be free, period. Some advocates have drawn comparisons to products men use—condoms , Viagra—that aren’t taxed, as an argument for a tampon exemption from the sales tax. But neither condoms nor Viagra are essential to hygiene or part of an involuntary biological function; menstrual products should be even easier to obtain. The tax on tampons and their exclusion from Medicaid and food stamp programs are a double burden on people who face other economic barriers: women with dependent, menstruating daughters, for instance, and lesbian couples, who require twice as many menstrual products and are twice as likely as straight couples to depend on food stamps. Defeating the tampon tax will be an undeniable symbolic win for women and people in poverty with nominal per-person effects. In the best-case scenario, it’ll codify tampons as a medical necessity, which will pave the way for Medicaid-covered menstrual products in the future. In the worst case, this nominal success will be a distraction from more systemic solutions, an excuse for conservative legislators to further ignore the brutal indignities of economic insecurity.