Michigan activists have fought for tax-free feminine hygiene products for years

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Bekah Page-Gourley,

Bekah Page-Gourley, of I Support the Girls Detroit, sorts donated menstrual products and bras with help from her #1 volunteer Isaac Gourley, 9, of Detroit in a storage unit at Extra Space Storage in Lincoln Park, Mich. on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. As two legislators introduce bi-partisan bills to eliminate the sales tax on feminine products, we look at the activists who have been pushing for such a move and have been helping to address the cost of these products for women who struggle with poverty. (Detroit Free Press by Kimberly P. Mitchell)

A pair of bills that would eliminate a tax on feminine hygiene products in Michigan is welcome news for local advocates and community organizations on the forefront of the fight to tackle “period poverty” — or the struggle to afford pads and tampons.

The legislation, introduced this year and headed to the House floor for a vote, seeks to exempt tampons, pads and other menstrual products from Michigan’s 6% sales and use tax. That tax unfairly burdens people who menstruate, advocates say.

For years, advocates and local organizations have been pushing to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax.” They’ve been filling in gaps, too, by providing pads, tampons and other menstrual hygiene products to people who can’t afford them.

The bills are a step in the right direction, they say, and the bipartisan nature of the legislation this year is promising. Bills to eliminate the tax have failed in the past, but the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic upheaval has only made those everyday products more expensive while people struggled to balance staying safe and staying employed.

“For many years, we’ve known that having a tax on those (products) puts undue burden on people when they have to make decisions around whether to buy products, or eat or buy clothing for children,” said Celia Thomas, chief operating officer of Alternatives for Girls in Detroit.


period products

As legislators introduce bi-partisan bills to eliminate the sales tax on feminine products, we look at the activists who have been pushing for such a move and have been helping to address the cost of these products for women who struggle with poverty. (Detroit Free Press by Kimberly P. Mitchell)

The organization distributed 1,600 hygiene kits, including period products, last year compared with 1,200 kits in 2019. Thomas attributed the spike to the COVID-19 pandemic. Distribution numbers this year are expected to be similar to 2019, she said.

Thomas said she is cautiously optimistic about the legislation passing.

“The truth is, we’re going to buy them regardless of whether there’s a tax or not. It’s just that when you take the tax away, it makes buying them less of a sacrifice, and it makes buying them less of a hard decision,” she said about period products.

Community groups fill gaps

Roughly a quarter of students, between 13 and 19 years old, struggled to afford period products, according to a 2021 study of 1,010 people commissioned by advocacy group PERIOD and Thinx, a feminine hygiene product company.

“Period products, including panty liners, menstrual cups, pads, tampons are not looked at as a medical necessity and because they’re not looked at as that, it is burdening to families,” said Paige Smalley, president and community outreach coordinator of student organization Detroit Period Project, formerly a chapter of the nonprofit PERIOD.

The group wants to make menstrual products more accessible at Wayne State University, and throughout Detroit. Among the Detroit Period Project’s goals: get free period products in campus restrooms this semester, get rid of the sales tax on period products at a campus store, educate people about periods and donate period products to local partners.

If the bills pass, it could “exponentially help a ton of students” as they balance paying for rent, groceries and menstrual products, said Smalley, a senior studying public health.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and while part of PERIOD, the group collected 4,000 pads and tampons. As a new student organization, Smalley said the pandemic has halted projects. Still, members have donated hundreds of items to local partners.

Rebekah Page-Gourley is the volunteer affiliate director with I Support the Girls Detroit, the local arm of an international group that collects bras, tampons and pads and distributes them to people facing homelessness. She sees the bills as a “link in the chain.”

“We’re going to keep, obviously, having to do the work that we do, but it will be that much easier for women, and the people who work in organizations, to be able to afford these products,” Page-Gourley said.

Thomas, of Alternatives of Girls, said even if the bills pass, there will still be a need for better access to menstrual products.

“The truth is, there are also those people who can’t afford products regardless of the tax. There will still be people who will not be able to afford the product because poverty exists,” she said.

State Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, is the lead sponsor of HB 4270, a measure to exempt period products from use taxes, and is joined by several other Democratic lawmakers. Meanwhile, Rep. Bryan Posthumus, R-Oakfield Township, is the lone sponsor of HB 5267, which aims to exempt the products from sales tax.

The bills define feminine hygiene products as “tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups, sanitary napkins, and other similar tangible personal property designed for feminine hygiene in connection with the human menstrual cycle.”

Those products in Michigan are subject to a 6% sales tax as “luxury items,” a legislative analysis from the House Fiscal Agency notes.

A pack of 36 pads at a CVS, for example, can cost $7.49. The 6% sales tax brings that to $7.94. Multiply that by 12 months and it’s $95.28.

“When you’re choosing what to buy at the grocery store, you would probably rather choose to spend your money on food — something that will sustain you for the next few days — than pads or tampons,” Melina Brann, executive director of the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, said in June.

Twenty-seven states still tax the products, according to an estimates by Period Equity, a national organization seeking to eliminate the tampon tax.

Between 2016 and 2020, Nevada, New York, Florida, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Utah, and Washington got rid of the tax, the House Fiscal Agency notes in its analysis.

“Removal of the tampon tax impacts all people who menstruate but especially low-income people,” said Laura Strausfeld, co-founder of Period Equity.

Across the country,tax revenue from period products generates about $120 million annually, according to Period Equity, with Michigan collecting about $7 million. Similarly, the House Fiscal Agency analysis estimates that the bills, if passed, would reduce sales and use tax revenue by approximately $7 million a year.

Last year, Period Equity helped three women sue the state, alleging that the tax on period products is “sex-based discrimination.” In June, the Michigan Court of Claims ruled against the women noting that the “only the Legislature may impose tax or exempt items from taxation.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for easily accessible period products as people faced job and income losses. Because the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the economic stability of women as they left the workforce and shouldered child care responsibilities, advocates argue that there’s renewed urgency in getting rid of the tax.

“We need to be holding our health to a high standard and that goes for period health, mental health, physical health, all of those things,” Brann said. “We really need to be putting that on the forefront of our policy and making sure that our services and what we need are equitable across the state and across the country.”

Free Press staff writer Dave Boucher contributed to this report.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Detroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA.

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