After a brief flurry of activity that mostly consisted of sound bites and tweets (#menstrualequity), New York lawmakers have exempted feminine hygiene products from state and local sales tax, effective next month.
You can view this as an overdue step toward gender fairness or as the latest example of pressure-point politics, in which a pre-existing condition, long considered normal, gets re-labeled in a way that demands immediate attention, much the way drug companies sometimes invent diseases in order to sell new drugs. The two are not mutually exclusive.
There are a lot of good conceptual reasons why New York should have exempted tampons and sanitary napkins from the sales tax sooner than it actually did. For one thing, the state has exempted low-priced items of clothing and footwear from the sales tax (which was first enacted in 1965) since 1996. Under this rule, diapers have been deemed to be exempt, both for infants and for adult incontinence. While we can easily distinguish the composition and purpose of a tampon from that of a shoe or a dress, I cannot think of a principled reason to treat tampons differently from diapers, which are made of the same stuff and serve a similar sanitary purpose.
Likewise, both over-the-counter and prescription medications have been exempt from the sales tax in New York since its inception. This rule brings condoms into its orbit; these products, used principally by men (albeit often purchased by women and at least equally important to them), are exempt. Tampons and condoms are not really analogous, but their differing tax treatment has been cited by some as an example of unfairness.
It is worth noting, too, that New Yorkers are not alone in disparaging the practice of taxing menstrual supplies when other products deemed “necessities” are tax-free. Canada decided to drop the country’s goods and services tax on these products last year, and legislation similar to New York’s is under discussion in several states and a few major municipalities. There is no formally coordinated effort to push for this change nationwide, but the idea keeps cropping up in the headlines, perhaps most notably when YouTube personality Ingrid Nilsen asked the president about the subject in January. Assuming that we choose to designate some items necessities and others luxuries when determining how they are taxed, it is understandable that many women find it strange that menstrual products fall into the latter category.
But we have to draw the line somewhere other than in the place where state Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican from Dutchess County, did in the statement she issued when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation she co-sponsored with Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat. Serino expressed hope that “we can continue down the path of applying commonsense to our tax laws as we work to make our state more affordable for all New Yorkers.”
Excuse me for raining on the parade, but exempting tampons from tax hardly makes living in the Empire State more affordable for “all New Yorkers.” For New Yorkers who menstruate and for those who buy their household goods, maybe. But the bill did not cut a nickel from the state’s current or future spending. Every penny of tax saved by a buyer of tampons or sanitary pads will have to be made up – by a wage-earner or business owner paying income taxes, by a homeowner or landlord paying property tax (which, while not paid to the state, is held down at the local level by subsidies from Albany), by a driver paying a toll or a rider paying a higher bus or train fare. There are no free lunches, and no free tampons either.
I don’t begrudge anyone their tax-free tampons. I certainly support programs that have started in New York City and elsewhere to provide feminine sanitary products to poor and homeless women. Such programs are a matter not only of hygiene, but of basic human dignity and compassion.
But if New York politicians really want to do something substantive to make the state friendlier to its female residents – and to its male residents, too – they ought to be working 24/7/365 on reducing or eliminating the burden that Albany imposes on everyone in the state, directly and indirectly, which contributes to making New York one of the most expensive places in the country to live. That is a mess no sanitary product can clean up.