What’s missing from the Menstrual Equity Act of 2017

Congresswoman Grace Meng (6th Congressional District, New York) has a proposal on the table in the form of the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2017 (H.R. 972), which would aim to make it so that all women and girls in the US have access to sanitary products — you know, tampons and pads.

It’s a start, but it’s missing some pieces. It doesn’t go far enough, and it misses out helping a large portion of the population. So while, in general, it’s a good thing… it’s not good enough.

Here’s the proposal, and some of the issues with it:

  1. Allow individuals to buy menstrual hygiene products with money they contribute to their flexible spending accounts.

Health Flexible Spending Accounts are mostly only used by people who work for mid-large size businesses. Part of the reason for that is this: if you don’t use all of the money you’ve put into them at the end of the year, you forfeit it — which means lower income households won’t actually use them (it’s not worth the risk).

If FSAs rolled over, it would be different. Still, it makes sense to add this to the existing list of eligible expenses. (Although it should be expanded in other directions too).

2. Provide a refundable tax credit to low-income individuals who regularly use menstrual hygiene products.

This helps the working poor, but doesn’t do anything to help people on welfare/disability who can’t work. Also, it pushes the problem into the next tax year, not the current one — unless you’re able to reshuffle your W4 to squeeze that money back into the current year, it’s not all that immediately helpful. Still, not a bad idea in and of itself.

3. Allow grant funds from the Emergency Food and Shelter Grant Program, which can be used by homeless assistance providers for essential household items, to be used for menstrual hygiene products.

I have no issue with this at all — it’s a great idea.

4. Require each state to provide menstrual hygiene products to female inmates and detainees, at no cost and on demand, as a condition of receiving funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.

This is also a great idea! It could be abused, but it’s worth trying. If it’s abused, then we can correct for that after the fact if it’s shown to be a problem. (If you’re wondering why I’m bringing up the potential for abuse, it’s because that will likely be the argument against doing things this way).

5. Direct the Secretary of Labor to require employers with 100 or more employees to provide menstrual hygiene products to their employees free of charge.

In my experience, most large companies do this already. Still, it’s not a bad idea to codify this into law.

Adding coverage for them to these programs would fix this problem for many more people than any of the Congresswoman’s proposed changes could or would — which makes it a surprising omission from the bill.

Now, what this bill is missing:

In states with sales taxes, no sales tax should be charged on basic human needs items.

That means sanitary products for the purposes of this bill, but there’s a broader issue at stake here. Realistically, this should also be extended to other categories of basic human needs, such as toilet paper, soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and contraceptives. Similarly, all basic essential groceries (fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, bread), and books — the things you need for a society that is not arbitrary and cruel to function.

Add a sanitary product allowance to programs such as SNAP, WIC, welfare, etcetera.

The problem with Congresswoman Meng’s plan is that it doesn’t help a large group of people — or does so in ways which are obtuse and don’t serve to help in the now, rather than in the next tax year. It requires planning and financial cushions in-place which many people do not have — or don’t have the wherewithal to handle (not everyone is great at taxes and planning).

This addition would fill the hole in the plan. SNAP and WIC don’t currently cover tampons and sanitary products. Adding coverage for them to these programs would fix this problem for many more people than any of the Congresswoman’s proposed changes could or would — which makes it a surprising omission from the bill.

The existing proposal is better than nothing, but we should push for it to be better than it is. Whether by modifying this bill, or by following it up with another one.

Meanwhile, chalk this bill up as a welcome baby-step forward.

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