The Cost of Being a Woman in Colorado: What Women Buy and How it’s Taxed

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Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

The “women’s tax” or the extra costs levied on women by virtue of their biology and/or gender identity has been a decades long cause for concern for many women. So the argument goes, the cost of being a woman is heftier than for folks of other gender identities. In fact, many women’s products have an up-charge such as haircuts, hair products, clothing, and accessories (check out this NYC report on gendered pricing). I can attest to always paying more for a haircut, regardless of how much or little I had done in comparison to the men in my life. I always thought that was suspicious.

I have come to realize that the notion of a “women’s tax” is actually a “thing,” but it is an oft-ignored reality. This past legislative session in Colorado, a few Colorado legislators, and the Women’s Lobby of Colorado decided to run a handful of bills to chip away at these additional costs faced by women. Two of these bills addressed the Colorado sales tax on diapers and on feminine hygiene products. Sadly, both bills died, in part because of the revenue that would be lost, estimated at about $2.5 million and in part, because they were considered “unnecessary” bills.

Diaper Tax

Any parent or guardian knows, diapers are a necessity. Regardless of the type you choose, you have to catch the poop somehow. They aren’t a purchase you can easily forgo like other items for young children. Diapers are crucial to preventing infection and help keep young children healthy.  The issue of diaper sales taxes, while not singularly a “women’s tax” issue is certainly related. Women are often the primary caregivers in their families and the sole provider in the majority of single parent households nationally.

According to the Women’s Lobby of Colorado (WLC), a volunteer and membership based organization committed to gender equity and justice for women in Colorado, disposable diaper purchases can cost a family anywhere between $50 and $60 a month per child. Over time, this adds up to a lot of money. Peg Pearl, WLC’s Board Chair, believed strongly in the Diaper Tax bill and its capacity to tangibly assist Colorado families. It was the first bill the WLC had run in some time, usually opting to support or oppose bills brought forth by other agencies. Pearl reflected: “We have made choices in society, under certain programs, i.e. SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], and diapers are excluded from those programs. So women who are already taking on the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program because they need extra help (single mothers bear the brunt of child rearing) – can’t use [SNAP/WIC] for diapers.”

Senator Beth Martinez-Humenik (R-Adams County District 24), a sponsor of the diaper bill (in addition to House Rep. Winter, D-Westminster), believes to exempt these products from state taxation is in the best interest of Colorado families. If the bill had passed, diapers would be exempted from the 2.9% state sales tax (not local taxes, which would still have applied). While that may not seem like much of a savings for Colorado families, when you experience economic vulnerability, saving $30 a year on diapers does make a difference to your family finances. When finances are tight, some families make the choice to reuse diapers, an unsafe practice because it can lead to infection. The hope was the bill would have assisted in reducing this practice.

According to the WLC, the tax relief would have equated to about one free day of diapers a month for Colorado’s families. In response to concerns that the tax exemption would detrimentally affect state revenues and TABOR (the argument that ultimately won out), Pearl argued “with this bill in particular, [it] gives money back at the point of sale every day when [parents] go shopping” and therefore, the bill doesn’t take any money from taxpayers, it gives it back. The diaper bill was also supported by the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), a grassroots non-profit in Denver supporting Latina women and their families and the Nappie Project which provides diapers for children in Loveland, Fort Collins and surrounding communities.

Feminine Hygiene Product Tax

The other bill that failed to pass exempted feminine hygiene products from state sales tax. Taxing these products is a clear way the women’s tax is evident. No one really wants to talk about menstruation in public – “shhhhh, it’s embarrassing.” But it’s not embarrassing; it is a biological reality and a sometimes painful experience for women. Exempting menstrual products from state sales tax relieves a burden on economically vulnerable women in our state because they are penalized the most by a flat taxation rate. A number of other states have passed similar laws, and Colorado legislator Rep. Susan Lontine (D-Denver) and Senator Beth Martinez-Humenik were hoping Colorado would join the growing list.  

“Periods are not a luxury” Lontine shared when we chatted about the bill. While Lontine understood the fiscal concerns given Colorado has some severe budget challenges, for her “it’s an issue of fairness for women in Colorado” and that is more important. The issue makes men uncomfortable and some called it frivolous. But all women Lontine had spoken to, including her constituents, were in agreement about the need to remove the tax. Women have to “pay extra to deal with [menstruation] and we make less,” Lontine laments. The largest opposition beyond the fiscal concerns, was that men in the legislature felt exempting feminine hygiene products from state sales tax created a special class. Lontine quickly and wryly responded: “men have been getting preferred treatment their whole lives.”

Much like the diaper tax, the taxation of feminine hygiene products disproportionately affects low income women in Colorado and while the bill would not have eliminated the cost for the products altogether, it would have helped. Women cannot re-use tampons or pads. Much like reusing disposable diapers, there exists a massive health risk in doing so. I think it is interesting to note Viagra, an erectile dysfunction prescription drug is largely exempt from sales tax and in some states, Rogaine, an over-the-counter non -prescription product for men’s hair loss is also exempted (Colorado is not one of them).

While the 2017 legislative season is over, and these two bills did not make it out alive, the WLC and Lontine are optimistic. They hope to continue the education and development of stakeholder support so that Colorado can join the other states in removing these taxes. In so doing, Colorado will be chipping away at the women’s tax that continues to disadvantage all women, but particularly economically vulnerable women and families in Colorado.

 

Features & NewsBri Miller