The State of Period Poverty in the U.S.
Menstrual hygiene products remain out of reach for many American households. The Center for Global Women’s Health wants to change that.
Period poverty, or the umbrella term for inequities related to menstruation, is a global challenge. The United States is not immune. Students, low-income and homeless women and girls, transgender and nonbinary individuals, and those who are currently imprisoned struggle with period poverty. For many, the price of a box of pads or tampons is exorbitant. Currently 35 states view these items as luxury goods and impose sales tax, also known as the “tampon tax,” on menstrual hygiene products. Conversely, groceries and medication are considered nonnegotiable necessities and are tax-exempt in most states. Period products should be, too.
Sales tax is only one barrier to affordable menstrual hygiene. Although more women than men live in poverty in the United States, period products cannot be purchased with food stamps, Medicaid, or health insurance spending accounts. According to the 2014 Shriver Report, there are at least 42 million impoverished women in the U.S. Many of these women experience the indignity and shame of being unable to care for themselves during their periods. A 2019 study of low-income women corroborates this account. Two-thirds of the women surveyed did not have the resources to buy menstrual hygiene products at some point during the last year, and one-fifth of respondents struggle to afford period products on a monthly basis. Without these items, women’s movement and ambitions are tampered. During these times, they may not feel able to leave their homes, go to work, or participate in civic life.
Public spaces inconsistently address period poverty. People experiencing homelessness must take extra precautions; they often don’t know if there will be space to wash at night or if shelter staff will be generous with pad and tampon distribution. Incarcerated women, who account for 13% of the overall imprisoned population, also suffer from limited and inconsistent access to period products.
There are a growing number of individuals and communities that are working towards change. Congresswoman Grace Meng introduced the Menstrual Equity for All Act in March 2019. This legislature would ensure that incarcerated and homeless women have access to menstrual products and would allow schools to use federal funds for period products. If the bill is passed, Medicaid would also have to cover the cost of menstrual products.
Advocates, including Penn Nursing’s Caroline Dillon, are also working to pass state-specific legislation. While researching a US History assignment, Dillon was shocked to learn that her high school peers did not have access to free or affordable menstrual hygiene products. Dillon turned her school assignment into a relentless drive to reduce period poverty in her state of New Hampshire.
Dillon focused her activism on schools where arguably students should find the resources and support to approach their periods proactively and positively. However, recent data finds that one in five American girls miss all or part of the school day due to their periods. Columbia professor Dr. Marni Sommer’s research shows that low-income students associate menstruation with shame, and feel uninformed about their periods.
Inspired by conversations with Marianne Smith, Associate Director of Enrollment Management for the School of Nursing, and New Hampshire Senator and Penn alum, Martha Hennessey, Dillon took her activism to the next level. Dillon and Hennessey worked together to move a period poverty bill through the NH Senate and House of Representatives. This past summer, NH Governor Chris Sununu signed the bill, SB 142, making Dillon’s vision a law and creating a new reality for New Hampshire students who now have access to menstrual hygiene products in female and gender-neutral bathrooms.
Penn students, like Dillon, have the full support of The Center for Global Women’s Health (CGWH) to fight period poverty and create change. CGWH hosts an important annual event, the West Philadelphia Women’s Health Day Conference, where community members, students, and staff come together to discuss menstrual health among other topics related to the health and well-being of women in this region. Last year, student attendees received menstrual kits to help manage and optimize their menstrual hygiene.
National Period Day is on October 19th. Rallies, drives, and events across the nation, including here in Philadelphia, create positive energy to counteract the shame and silence associated with menstruation. CGWH is leading the way with a donation drive from October 21 to October 31 to collect menstrual products for the community. In partnership with Cycle Sisters, a West Philadelphia-based nonprofit, CGWH will distribute the collection to neighbors in need. Join CGWH in creating change; donate pads, tampons, and other menstrual products to celebrate National Period Day.
National Period Day Donations Drive
October 21 - 31
Donation boxes are located on 4U, Fagin Hall
WRITER: AMY SMITH