A modest proposal to eradicate Period Poverty in America

February 19th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Some things are plain and easy. Some are not. This one is the former. Or should be, anyway.

Every year, thousands of young girls skip school for something entirely beyond their control — menstruation. Most of them miss school because of Period Poverty. Simply put, Period Poverty is not having enough money to buy menstrual products, such as tampons, pads or reusable products like menstrual cups.

I know. This is a delicate subject. Regardless, it needs discussion.

This is a global problem; doesn’t matter the country. According to the World Bank, period poverty affects approximately 500 million women and girls around the world. In the U.S., nearly 22 million women living in poverty  cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. One study in Obstetrics and Gynecology  concluded 64% of women reported they’ve had difficulty affording menstrual products. And 21% reported they were unable to afford them every month. 

This can be particularly difficult for girls in middle and high school, and even more so for girls and young women who identify as BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, People of Color.

According to Harvard Medical School, 1 in 5 teens between the ages of 12 and 19 misses school every month because of Period Poverty. This easily correctable absenteeism can have a detrimental impact on a student’s academic progress and overall educational experience.

In 2018, the Scottish government made history by becoming the first government in the world to make period products free to students. Since then, New Zealand, France, Kenya, New South Wales, Botswana, South Africa, South Korea, and more have followed suit.

As has the U.S. — sort of.

Like many problems, alleviating Period Poverty is a state by state thing. In 2018, New York became the first state to mandate free period products in public and charter schools, but did so without providing state funding for the requirement. In 2023, the state expanded the requirement to include private schools.

Other states have followed New York. As of 8 January 2024, 25 states and Washington D.C. have now passed legislation to help students who menstruate have free access to period products while in school.

Overall, the details in enacted Period Product legislation vary widely between states, and this is a problem. Some laws include state funding to make products available in schools for free. Some make funding available through grants schools must apply for. Legislation in ten states and the District of Columbia  require the products to be free, but do so through unfunded mandates. Many states require period products be available in middle and high school restrooms, while others include elementary schools. Some legislation also requires period products in restrooms of public colleges and universities.

Specifically, here is how each of the 25 states that mandate providing free period products addresses the issue:

And then there is the tax. Nineteen states mandate sales taxes on menstrual products. The taxes range between 4% and 7%. Twenty-six states exempt period products from taxation, and five states have no sales tax. Taxing period products makes them even more unaffordable for low income women and girls.

Other countries have attacked Period Poverty with country-wide solutions. America has not done that. Every state is on its own to attack a universal problem. Personally, I am disappointed my state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has not enacted free period product legislation, although there has been a bill before the legislature since 2018, and for the last two years it has passed in the Massachusetts Senate, only to die in the House of Representatives. Doesn’t seem to me any rational reason for not moving it forward.

Around the country, there are a number of organizations doing their best to eradicate Period Poverty. Dignity Grows is one such organization. Aunt Flow is another. In Massachusetts, Dignity Matters collects, purchases and supplies menstrual products, bras and underwear to women and girls in homeless shelters.

What we really need is a country-wide federal approach to this problem that affects everyone who menstruates, regardless of where they live. Such an approach could simply mandate providing period products in middle and high school, as well as colleges and universities, while leaving the states to decide how best to carry out the law.

This is such a Mom and Apple Pie issue, it would appear even our current Congress with all its warring factions could get behind the idea with one of those rare moments of bipartisanship.

Well, one can always dream.


Correction — In last Thursday’s Letter about the Child Tax Credit expansion, I incorrectly cited the vote in the House as 370 – 70. The actual vote was 357 – 70. Republicans voted 169-47 for the bill, while Democrats backed it by a 188-23 margin. I apologize for the mistake.