By Diana Richtman
According to the United States Census Bureau, 12.7 percent of people in the U.S. live in poverty. In Athens-Clarke County, that number almost triples with 35.5 percent of people living in poverty. While there are many programs at UGA and in Athens-Clarke county that work to make this percentage go down, one topic that is not addressed often is the effects of menstruation on people who are homeless and/or under the poverty line.
In Georgia, as well as many other states, menstrual products receive a sales tax, often referred to as the tampon tax. In the United States, items deemed necessary items or non-luxury are not taxed, such as prescriptions and prosthetics. However, this method of categorizing items as necessary or luxury is not as clear cut as one would think.
For example in Georgia, if someone wants a tattoo or piercing, they don’t have to pay a sales tax. Conversely, if they need to buy tampons or pads because they are on their period, they have to pay the tax. Despite this, menstrual products are widely seen as a basic health item for half the population, and therefore should qualify for the tax exemption.
Rachel Tepper, a fourth year international affairs and Spanish major at UGA, and an advocate for menstrual health says, “The idea that it’s not a necessary expense is completely wrong.” She goes on to say, “I would hope to see that people understand and lawmakers understand that these are very necessary.”
In recent years, the United States seems to be making some headway with Tepper’s hope. Several states, such as New York and Illinois, have already passed legislation that exempts menstrual products from sales tax. Representative Debbie Buckner, a democrat in the Georgia House of Representatives proposed a bill in January 2018 that would exempt menstrual products from the Georgia sales tax. The bill has received support from both parties, but, as of the time of this article being written, the bill is still up for debate.
Those who cannot afford pads or tampons will often resort to using anything available to them to soak up the blood, such as socks, rags or newspapers. This, along with leaving tampons in for too long in order to stretch out the length of their use, can cause serious health problems, such as toxic shock syndrome.
In many cases, those who cannot afford products will stay home from work or school in order to avoid bleeding in public. For people with hourly wages, this could mean a smaller income, which makes it even harder to purchase products the next month. For students, it can be detrimental to their education to miss several days every month because they do not have menstrual products. For homeless people, this often means bleeding through an already limited amount of clothing.
These struggles can be exacerbated for transgender men who need access to affordable menstrual products and facilities to safely use them in order to avoid discrimination and harassment. This problem becomes clearer when one considers the statistics that accompany transgender people in America. According to the Center for American Progress, 15 percent of transgender people in America earn less than $10,000 a year (in comparison to 4 percent for the general population), and according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their life. Bleeding in public can out trans men and put them in situations where others might discriminate against them or harass them.
Tepper is also the Vice President of Operations for (Fem)me, a student group at UGA devoted to collecting menstrual products and providing menstrual “kits” to various homeless shelters in Athens-Clarke county. These kits have items for the month including tampons or pads, advil, wipes and hand sanitizer.
“The whole point of this is to dignify the process,” Tepper says.
They work with centers such as the Athens Nurses Clinic, Sparrows Nest and Athens Little Free Pantry. The group has fundraisers throughout the year in order to provide menstrual kits to these places each month. Recently, (Fem)me hosted a Grab 2 challenge event. Their Grab 2 event encourages those who can afford it to grab an extra box of tampons or pads the next time they purchase a box for themselves. Then, (Fem)me asks that the extra box be donated to them in order to assemble the kits. Each month (Fem)me distributes about 300 kits.
Tepper shares more on what she wants for the future. “This probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but I hope that it will just be a very common-place bodily function. I would like to see these products almost free for people.”
Until that time, groups like (Fem)me will continue to serve those living in poverty in Athens-Clarke county.