Consumerism fights to survive budget cuts, waning interest

The consumer's movement, long taken for granted in this country, may have seen better days. Budgets have been cut at federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. A New York University marketing professor reports that her students today relate more to the ideas of conservative economist Milton Friedman than consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a switch from 10 years ago. At the Columbia University journalism school, a consumer reporting class is listed in the curriculum, but it hasn't been taught in the last few years.

But in spite of what some observers see as dropping interest in the consumer movement in the United States, the legacy of consumer advocacy is still felt in everything from energy efficiency guides on refrigerators to consumer reporting on local television and radio stations.

``The consumer's movement . . . is doing just fine,'' says Rhoda M. Karpatkin, executive director of Consumers Union (CU), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

CU's magazine, Consumer Report, has an all-time high circulation of 3.5 million. Ms. Karpatkin points to such organizations as the Consumers Federation of America and the American Council on Consumer Interests.

``Consumers want more than information,'' says Karpatkin. There are big issues that make them feel vulnerable, such as auto safety, and they support watchdog groups outside of government and business, like the Center for Auto Safety.

Phil Nowicki, who is writing a book on auto ``lemon laws'' while getting his doctorate at Syracuse University, says there is still an overall sentiment in favor of a government regulation to help consumers.

Mr. Nowicki calls current efforts an ``almost transparent consumerism.'' Out of the 41 states that have lemon laws -- which are designed to protect auto buyers beyond usual warranties -- only two have real teeth, he says.

Karpatkin says that the tone set from government today, which is loathe to add new regulations or to spend more money enforcing laws, is not helpful for consumers.

The lack of response from the government has led CU to target the issue of poor consumers.

She points to the more than 35 million people who lived below the federal poverty line of $10,990 a year in 1983.

In a recent issue of Consumer Reports, Karpatkin also noted that one out of every five children in the US now lives in poverty, including more than half of all black children under six.

CU was founded during the depression with the dual purpose of providing impartial information for consumers and helping poor people achieve ``a decent standard of living.'' That mandate does not just extend to the single shopper who uses the consumer product testing reports to buy a television or hot dogs, says Karpatkin.

``When we test a product that people need to buy, we help create a fair marketplace,'' she says. ``We help set a sense of expectations on how sellers should behave, that products should be of good quality, safe, fairly priced, and long lasting.''

These standards, which Karpatkin says have become somewhat internalized in American consumers, help set a fair market for poor consumers also.

CU also plans to sponsor a conference in Washington D.C. this fall on lower income consumers, and it will also develop programs to reach this population.

For example, CU has three law offices around the country which work on consumer affairs. Issues that affect the poor, for example, might include utility rates.

Despite her enthusiam for grassroots consumerism, Karpatkin says federal participation is necessary. Only the federal government can introduce laws that ensure uniformity in 50 states.

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