If it bleeds, it leads but it may not be poverty

The New Zealand Herald
22 August, 2018

There is a saying about the news media: "If it bleeds, it leads". Not to be crude, but the recent rise in coverage of period poverty is a classic example of such thinking.

The period poverty movement appears torn in its objectives: is the problem periods or is it poverty? Because for all the concern behind the movement, the focus on poverty seems to have been lost.

For those who have not heard of the concept, "period poverty" refers to the costs and sacrifices women face when purchasing sanitary items. The monthly expense is said to be prohibitive to some households, forcing girls to skip school.

Stories have emerged of women having to create makeshift pads from socks and newspapers or stealing tampons from supermarkets. Effective campaigning has led to one supermarket reducing the costs of its cheapest brands of pads and tampons. And a buy-one-give-one enterprise has emerged where for every item purchased, an equivalent will be donated to schools.

Now, it is absolutely unacceptable that girls must miss school for reasons outside of their control. It is also unacceptable that women must switch to impractical or unhygienic alternatives.

The period poverty movement has done well to highlight an aspect of poverty that might otherwise be shrouded in shame and stigma.

But let's get real. The problem is not period poverty. The problem is poverty, pure and simple.

It is not the price of pads and tampons that have been rising faster than wage growth. A growing number of households are not spending more than 50 per cent of their incomes on sanitary items. Considering one supermarket has reduced the cheapest box of tampons from $3.50 to $3, it is hard to believe that periods alone are breaking the bank for poorer households.

Housing costs, on the other hand, are eating up a growing proportion of low- and middle-income household budgets. Cost-of-living pressures are leaving poorer and middle-income households with less disposable income for other essentials. The problem is not the cost of having a period, but an insufficient income to meet basic needs.

Donating sanitary items might ease the pressure on some struggling families, but it should not be considered a long-term fix. The same households who have to make sacrifices around periods will be facing sacrifices and hard decisions in other areas.

We talk little about shoe poverty, nappy poverty, dental poverty or childcare poverty. Yet they too are all symptoms of poverty. Likewise period poverty is a symptom, not the problem.

Considering the problem has not yet been formally quantified, it is difficult to assess how widespread this problem is and how it compares to other poverty symptoms that households face.

Remember, the social enterprise Eat My Lunch recently had to backtrack on its claim that 290,000 children go to school without lunch every day. A KidsCan estimate puts that number closer to 55,000 a week.

Understanding the size of the problem is surely the first step to considering policy solutions.

The period poverty phenomenon is further complicated by the fact it has been extended from poorer women to all women. Extending the period poverty problem to all women suggests that campaigners of such policies believe that the problem is not so much poverty, but periods.

This is exemplified through major public policy campaigns such as removing GST from sanitary products. And the solutions are not all that elegant.

New Zealand's GST regime is highly regarded for its simplicity and efficiency. And the reason our tax system is efficient is because it does not exempt certain items. Though campaigns pop up occasionally to remove GST from "basics" like fruit and vegetables, they are generally rejected because there are more efficient and effective ways of dealing with the problem.

If there are concerns that the budget of poorer households cannot stretch to afford the basics, the simple solution is to give poor people more money. It is that easy.

Of course, there will be those who believe that having periods at all is a serious biological injustice that women should not be expected to pay for. But conflating women in poverty with women who are annoyed at the high cost, but wouldn't bat an eyelid at paying $300 for a haircut, is disingenuous.

I am as irritated as the next woman that a $1 spent on sanitary items is $1 that cannot be spent on more fulfilling things like books, chocolate or shoes. But I wouldn't go so far as to call my personal predicament poverty.

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