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Diaper and menstrual product taxes worsen inequity. Some Council Members want to pressure the state to end them

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Louisville Metro Council Member Paula McCraney knows firsthand how much the cost of diapers can sometimes be a burden. 

The mother of two sons, now in their 30s, McCraney said she was still “climbing the ladder” when her kids were young and she didn’t have much disposable income.

“Was I able to buy diapers? Yes, I was,” she said. “Did I like buying them? No, I hated the expense.”

McCraney said that while she had the means to ensure her sons didn’t go without fresh diapers, many Kentucky parents living in poverty don’t have as many options. And she said the state’s 6% sales tax on diapers only makes affording them more difficult.

“Every penny counts when you’re counting pennies,” she said. 

McCraney, a Democrat who represents Louisville’s District 7, recently introduced two resolutions calling on the Kentucky General Assembly to eliminate taxes on diapers and menstrual products. Democratic District 8 Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, a mother of a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, is a cosponsor of the proposed legislation.

The resolutions passed out of committee last week, and the full Metro Council is expected to approve them on Thursday night.

Who’s most affected by these taxes?

Many states have moved away what’s colloquially known as a “tampon tax” or “pink tax” ⁠in recent years. Twenty-four states including Ohio, Louisiana and Florida had eliminated sales tax on menstrual products as of February. Kentucky is one of 26 states that still taxes them. 

As the price of diapers rises with inflation and many states are seeing a surplus of tax revenue, there’s also been a push to eliminate taxes on diapers. A dozen states have already done so and two others will eliminate the tax next year, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Chambers Armstrong said the people most impacted by these taxes are low-income women and single mothers who struggle to afford the cost of menstruation products and diapers in the first place.

“Those are going to be the people that are buying these products every single month, more frequently sometimes,” she said. “That little bit of extra money they are going to keep matters more in their paycheck-to-paycheck budgets than it is for some other folks.” 

The number of people affected would be significant in Kentucky, where 16.6% of residents live below the federal poverty line, compared to the national average of 11.4%. That means over 700,000 Kentucky residents lived on less than $12,760 for an individual or $26,200 for a household of four in 2020, according to U.S. Census Data analyzed by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

More than 18% of Kentucky women lived in poverty in 2020, compared to 15% of men. Black Kentuckians were also far more likely to experience poverty, with a 26.6% poverty rate compared to 15.2% for white residents.

McCraney said that the tax on diapers and menstrual products is a health issue as well as an equity issue. 

“You’d be surprised at the number of women who have to go a longer period of time with the same tampon or the same napkin,” she said. “And even with the baby and the diaper, and the rashes that might come because their diaper is on too long, it’s all just a big ol’ doctor bill waiting to happen.”

Experts say not changing a pad or tampon frequently, every four to eight hours, can put the person at risk for health complications such as Toxic Shock Syndrome. The American Medical Association estimates the average lifetime cost for menstrual products is around $2,000. 

In the first peer-reviewed study to quantify diaper need in 2013, researchers from Yale found that Black and Hispanic women were more likely to report feeling they did not have enough diapers to change them as often as they would like. Researchers found that not having an adequate supply of diapers led to increased parenting stress, which also negatively impacts child health and development. 

Kentucky legislators have shown little interest in eliminating the “pink tax”

Democratic State Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville proposed legislation to get rid of the taxes in 2019, but the bills never received a committee hearing, so they died without any debate.

Scott told a Metro Council committee last week that the body could set an example for other cities by passing the proposed resolutions and helping push the General Assembly toward action. 

“I know people whose babies have to walk around with the same diapers all day,” she said. “I know people who have to walk around with the same menstrual pad all day because they can’t afford more pads or whatever it is they need to use to stymie their flow.”

What Scott and some council members are asking for is not entirely new, said Jason Bailey, executive director of the progressive think tank Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Bailey said the state already exempts a long list of products from its 6% sales tax, including prescription drugs, food and some types of farm equipment.

“As a state we already don’t tax necessities,” he said. “Diapers and feminine products are necessities that impact roughly half the population, so it’s just a matter of fairness and equity that these proposals move forward.”

As Republicans legislators look to reform the state’s tax code mostly by slashing the income tax rate, there are some concerns that they’ll try to raise the sales tax to make up for lost revenue. Bailey said that would lead to savings for the wealthiest residents, who pay the most in income taxes, while raising the cost of basic goods for everyone, including the poorest Kentuckians.

“In the case of diapers and feminine products, obviously if the tax rate were higher that’s even more inequity in terms of women, mothers and parents in the state,” he said. “It would exacerbate that problem.”

Fiscal notes attached to Scott’s two bills in 2019 showed eliminating the diaper and tampon tax would cost the state $6 million and $2.6 million a year in lost tax revenue, respectively. Bailey said that number is “really a rounding error” in the context of Kentucky’s $14 billion budget. 

The proposed Metro Council resolutions are not binding. They are on the meeting’s consent calendar, meaning they should pass without debate. The legislation will declare the majority opinion of the 26-member body, but won’t compel action by the General Assembly.

Chambers Armstrong and McCraney said they hope Louisville can add to the pressure on state lawmakers to seriously consider eliminating sales taxes on diapers and menstrual products.

Note: Metro Council unanimously approved both resolutions on July 28, 2022.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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