It’s Time for a Whole-of-Government Approach to Address Period Poverty in the U.S.

Rep. Grace Meng (center) and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf—both at podium—with advocates of the Menstrual Equity for All Act during its initial introduction in Mar 26, 2019. (Twitter)

As a member of Congress and as advocates, we share the belief that there is power in leveraging the law to help make healthy, dignified, stigma-free menstruation a reality for all. Period poverty is one of America’s alarming—and often hidden—inequities:

  • A 2019 study found that among low-income women in St. Louis, Mo., nearly half (46 percent) had to choose between buying food and spending money on menstrual products, which cost on average $7–10 per month.

  • Those experiencing homelessness report isolation and infection caused by using tampons and pads for longer than recommended or by having to improvise with items like rags, paper bags, or newspapers.

  • Brutal indignity and harm on account of menstruation is often experienced by those who are transgender, or suffer from domestic violence, or exist outside societal safety nets.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem. A study released by George Mason University found that one in 10 college students surveyed nationwide were unable to afford menstrual products in the last year. Women of color are disproportionately impacted: Nearly a quarter of the Latina respondents and 20 percent who are Black reported ongoing lack of access; rates were also higher among first-generation college students.

Around the world, several nations have announced major reforms. Scotland recently became the first country to mandate free menstrual products to anyone in need; New Zealand and France will now make them freely available in schools. After appointing a national Period Poverty Taskforce in 2019, Britain ended its ‘tampon tax’ on January 1, 2021.

So, what can the United States government do? As much as we wish there were a singular national mandate that could eradicate period poverty, unfortunately it is not so simple. Ours is a republic of states, sprawling and diverse. But a combination of federal, state and local interventions is possible—and we are forging those.

Federal Reform

Representative Meng leads the effort in Congress. She successfully urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency to add menstrual products to the list of essential items that can be purchased with certain federal grant funds; and the Bureau of Prisons to provide period products for incarcerated women at no cost, which was later codified by the 2018 First Step Act.

As a member on the House Appropriations Committee, Meng has ensured that federal spending bills prioritize menstrual equity by securing provisions that direct: the Veterans Health Administration to make pads and tampons freely available in all VA facilities; the Department of Health and Human Services to commission a first-time comprehensive study on menstrual product usage; and the Department of Labor to issue guidance urging large employers to provide free products for employees.

Meng and Weiss-Wolf in 2019. (Twitter)

Additionally, Meng’s legislation to allow menstrual products to be purchasable with pre-tax dollars via employee health savings and flexible spending accounts was enacted into law under the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Prior to the recent Peace Corps-wide evacuations on account of the pandemic, two out of three volunteers serving in 60 countries were female—but there was uneven access to menstrual products. The Representative’s Menstrual Equity in the Peace Corps Act, introduced in March, would ensure menstrual access or universally raise the stipend so that volunteers do not pay out of pocket for these items essential to their health.

And last Friday—Menstrual Health Day—Meng reintroduced the Menstrual Equity for All Act (ME4ALL), a federal bill to alleviate period poverty for multiple populations: Medicaid recipients; individuals experiencing homelessness; students in elementary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities; and incarcerated individuals and those held in detention facilities. The bill would also make menstrual products available at no cost in all federal buildings.

State by State

Beyond federal levers, policy change also must happen at the state and local level. To date, six states have legally mandated that pads and tampons be provided in schools, and 13 states passed laws to require them in prisons, jails and shelters. Many cities and communities have done the same, even extending to places like public benefits offices, libraries, and parks.

There’s a broad movement to demand that menstrual products be tax-free—a.k.a. ending the ‘tampon tax.’ This is one of the battles that must be waged on the ground given that sales tax is levied by states. There remain 29 states that still refuse to exempt menstrual products from sales tax. (The latest state to ax the tax is Vermont; just last week the exemption was included in its soon-to-be-signed budget.)

All told, $125 million annually is collected by state tax agencies from our period purchases. Since 2016, eleven states have eliminated the ‘tampon tax’—by passing laws, reconciling budgets, even launching a citizen-led ballot measure—as have two major cities (Chicago and Denver) and Washington, D.C.

Americans Need Help Right Now

Periods do not stop for pandemics, but for the past year, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed families to the brink. Women—especially, moms and moms of color—have left the workforce in droves, even though they’re breadwinners in nearly half of families with children under 18. We know the issue of period poverty cuts across myriad inequities—gender and race; access to health care, housing, and education; and embedded in our criminal justice and immigration system.

As our nation seeks to build back from the economic precipice, we have a unique opportunity to tackle this issue, once and for all. We urge Congress to pass the Menstrual Equity for All Act. And we call on the administration to direct a national, whole-of-government strategy to address menstrual equity. It is paramount to achieving a just and fair society.

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About , and

Grace Meng is a Democrat representing parts of Queens, N.Y., in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Chelsea VonChaz is the founder of Happy Period and a board member of Period Equity.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the executive director of Ms. partnerships and strategy. A lawyer, fierce advocate and frequent writer on issues of gender, feminism and politics in America, Weiss-Wolf has been dubbed the “architect of the U.S. campaign to squash the tampon tax” by Newsweek. She is the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, which was lauded by Gloria Steinem as “the beginning of liberation for us all,” and is a contributor to Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth. She is also the executive director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Center at NYU Law. Find her on Twitter: @jweisswolf.