Should breast pumps be tax deductible?

Breast pumps currently count neither as a health expense nor a work-related expense. Should they?

Photo illustration / David R. Frazier / / Newscom / File
Mothers who choose to work and breast-feed their children – and who don't have child care in their workplace – must pump milk to be used later for bottle-feeding. Should that make breast pumps qualify as a tax-deductible work expense?

OK. I feel that I’ve got to use my “comparative advantage” to say something “economic” about something most economists can’t speak from personal experience on: breast pumps.

I read this story in yesterday’s New York Times (coincidentally on my train ride up to New York) and was amused. The story explains that the cost of breast-feeding equipment is not considered a tax-deductible medical expense, even under the new health reform law, and complains this doesn’t seem right given that:

Denture wearers will get a tax break on the cost of adhesives to keep their false teeth in place. So will acne sufferers who buy pimple creams.

People whose children have severe allergies might even be allowed the break for replacing grass with artificial turf since it could be considered a medical expense.

But nursing mothers will not be allowed to use their tax-sheltered health care accounts to pay for breast pumps and other supplies.

I happen to agree with breast-feeding advocates that breast feeding is a good practice, with psychological and physical health benefits to both mom and baby that extend for years. I happen to have breast fed all of my own (four) babies (not all at once of course), and I am one of those working moms who needed a good breast pump to use when I returned to work and decided it was worth paying a lot of money for this good “investment.” (Here’s the equivalent newest version of the one I had, which I recall seemed a lot more expensive 15-20 years ago, but maybe that’s because my real and not just nominal income has increased. I don’t think technology advances have had the same effect on breast pump prices as on flat-panel TVs…)

But a breast pump is not a health-related expense, as it’s not necessary in order to treat a medical condition or ailment. It’s a work-related expense that happens to promote or be consistent with a healthy activity. For the vast majority of women without severe obstacles to breast feeding the natural way (direct from the source!), breast pumps are not necessary in order to breast feed one’s baby unless and until mom goes back to the office and can’t have baby with her.

Given that this is mostly a work-related expense, it’s more consistent with expenses such as transportation and parking expenses, which employers often pay a portion of and which receive “preferences” under the federal income tax (nearly $500/month can be excluded from taxable income). Or child care expenses which also receive generous tax treatment on the grounds that they are work-related expenses. If breast-feeding, working-mom advocacy groups want to argue for a tax preference for breast-feeding equipment, I think they ought to argue it on gender-equity grounds as a cost of earning income that disproportionately burdens working women (moms with the breasts, duh!) more than working men.

If breast pumps were to be given tax-preferred treatment as a health-care expense just because it’s a piece of equipment that makes it easier to engage in a healthy activity, I’d say it would be hard to draw the line. That would be equivalent to not just allowing the cost of (health-enhancing) yoga classes to be deductible as a health-related expense from taxable income, but allowing the cost of one’s yoga mat, props, and maybe even cute yoga clothes to receive tax exemption, too.

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