Junior League of New Orleans (JLNO) 2021 Legislative Session Overview on March 24th brought together three panelists who illuminated how alleviating diaper need and period poverty could improve the wellbeing of women and girls by discussing the currently observable ways that lack of access to diapers and period products are causing harm to low-income households.

Philip Vander Klay, Director of Policy and Governmental Relations at the National Diaper Bank Network and Alliance for period supplies, began the program by describing how diaper need is itself a specific kind of cyclic poverty, where diapers are a resource that 60% of families are consistently struggling to adequately access. Parents end up missing work because they do not have enough diapers to send their child to school or childcare, which often leads to a further reduction in wages, making it difficult to afford the next month’s $80-$100 worth of diapers. Or, in the worst case scenario, they have to seek expensive emergency medical services to diagnose and treat infections caused by diaper shortages, which further reduces their ability to furnish enough diapers when needed. 

Charmaine Caccioppi, United Way of South Louisiana’s Executive Vice President and C.E.O., added that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 33% of families in the region were not able to afford household basics. “They’re on edge and unable to save for emergencies and crises, and we know the pandemic has only worsened this situation.” She also spoke to the known negative developmental impacts adolescent women experience when they have inadequate access to period products, such as missing school or extracurriculars, increased incidents of reproductive and urinary tract infections, and lower levels of self-confidence.

What is clear is that women and girls suffer financially, psychologically and medically when they are stuck in this specific cycle of diaper and period product poverty. What is also clear: this cycle can be interrupted, and women and girls can be elevated out of it. JLNO’s Diaper Bank and its distribution partners have had an immediate, hugely positive impact by giving out 1 million diapers in the 2019-2020 League year. That large number of diapers indicates an impressive mobilization of will into action—and also that diaper need is a large-scale problem that requires long-term change.

That is where the third panelist comes in. Representative Aimee Freeman, a JLNO Sustainer, has sponsored legislation that proposes to reduce the cost of diapers and period products for all Louisiana residents by exempting these items from state sales tax. “Louisiana already exempts groceries and prescriptions. Taxing period products places an extra burden on low-income women,” says Representative Freeman. Eliminating the so-called “pink tax?” According to her, “It’s just the right thing to do.” 

Last session, Representative Freeman introduced Act 138, which passed in the legislature and allowed municipalities throughout the state the option of exempting diapers and period products from sales tax. Major cities including New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport have implemented that option. This year’s House Bill 7 (HB7) seeks to expand the tax exemption to the entire state. So far, the bill has passed through Ways and Means and will soon be heard on the House floor. Representative Freeman says we can help the bill pass by encouraging family and friends who live in other areas of the state to contact their local officials expressing support for HB7. “It’s critical for people in places like Alexandria, Monroe, Thibodaux and Houma to contact their legislators,” she says. “Make it personal so they become champions for the legislation they’re putting forward.” The 5-7% of sales tax that parents will save over their lifetime can add up to a big benefit. “Low income families know where every part of their dollar goes, and they miss that income,” adds Philip. 

Supporting the statewide passage of HB7 is just one way the Louisiana Legislature could help improve the wellbeing of women and girls this session. Charmaine says local efforts are ongoing to win equal pay for women and to raise the current minimum wage to “help people find dignity in work and meet a survival budget.” These efforts to raise minimum wage and eliminate the gender wage gap work together with the tax exemption to allow families to afford household basics, like diapers and period products.