By the end of 1990, according to the consumer magazine Changing Times, the prosperity of the average American household declined by almost $5,000.
"Last year the stock market tumbled, banks trembled, housing prices toppled and Americans stumbled in their march to a more prosperous future."The magazine's Personal Prosperity Index, which measures household spending combined with net worth adjusted for inflation, tells a sobering tale. "The market value of savings and investments owned by U.S. households dropped sharply. Unhappy homeowners in the Northeast and West watched helplessly as their home equity fell. And in an ironic twist of fate, Americans in search of safety and high yield took their money out of banks."
These are hard times for consumers.
At the same time, many of the traditional products, plans and institutions that Americans are familiar with and have relied on are going through transitions of their own.
These are changing times for consumers.
"Hard Times; Changing Times - The Consumer Movement Responds to a World in Transition" was the theme of the 24th annual Consumer Assembly sponsored by the Consumer Federation of American (CFA) in Washington D.C. last week. (CFA is a federation of 240 pro-consumer groups representing 50 million consumers and is one of the major consumer advocacy, lobbying, education coalitions in the country.) The assembly drew consumer activists, government officials and corporate representatives from all over the country to talk about the challenges consumers can expect in coming months.
"Our theme reflects extensive changes that have taken place on both the national and international scene," said CFA executive director Stephen Brobeck. "The picture looks brighter now than it did a month ago. Yet the country is still in recession; consumers are having to cope with a reduced standard of living."
Polls, he says, suggest there are increasing concerns about health and safety. There is also a big debate as to the benefits of economic deregulation. Of the 10 industries that have been deregulated, three have come under heavy fire in recent months: banking, telecommunications and transportation.
Whatever else the gulf war did, it focused our attention on our dependence on foreign oil. "We are also watching wealth flow out of society due to foreign competition," says Brobeck. "There are long-term international economic and political questions that will have a tremendous impact on consumers."
The two-day conference provided a forum for lively discussion. While there was little agreement on solutions, there was a consensus on which issues should be at the top of the consumer agenda for 1991.
In coming months, we can expect to hear lots more in the following areas:
HEALTH CARE: Health care will be a key issue in Congress - and one of the most significant issues of the '90s, says Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.Dak), who serves as a member of the Senate's Medicare and Long-Term Care subcommittee.
The problem, he says, is that society doesn't deliver health care equitably. A few statistics point to the problem:
- 30 million Americans can't afford and are not covered by health insurance in any form.
- 38,000 of these people seek health care every day.
- 70 million Americans are underinsured.
Even for those who have health insurance programs, health costs are rising at extraordinary rates. The average American family spends $2,000 a year on health care and insurance. That figure is expected to go up two times by the year 2000, says Daschle.
AUTO INSURANCE: Auto insurance is regulated at the state level, but Congress can't ignore this issue, said Cardiss Collins (D-Ill), who is chairman of the House Commerce, Consumer Protection and Competitiveness subcommittee. Insurance rates are high and rising. There are concerns about insolvency - whether some companies will be able to make good on their promises to pay. There have been cases of incompetency and fraud.
Another auto insurance area that should be looked at, says Collins, is collision damage waivers in the rental industry. "These increase the cost of renting a car up to 40 percent a day and in many cases cover things already covered by the consumers own insurance."
PRODUCT SAFETY: 80,000 Americans die each year in product-related injuries.
Congress last year voted to strengthen the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to give it stronger powers to go after unsafe products and to increase penalties, but the agency is still underfunded, says Collins. Measures must be taken to insure that manufacturers make safe products.
At the other end of the spectrum, says John Danforth (R-Mo), ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, "our product liability system is a disgrace."
Long, drawn-out legal cases; awards that have little bearing on actual damages - these are just a couple of the problems, he says.
"Recovery for victims must be swift, certain and fully compensatory. But it also has to be done without hurting business. Twenty cents of every production dollar now goes to liability costs, which increases the cost of the product. That's one reason American companies are losing to foreign competition."
FINANCIAL SERVICES: In recent years our financial system has been damaged and is still under stress, says Donald Riegle (D-Mich), chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. `This will be one of the fundamental issues of the 102nd Congress.
"What will be the function of the financial industry? It is not often that this basic issue comes around to be redefined, but we are at that point now."
The thrift industry is in deep distress, he says. The banking deposit system is undercapitalized. Interstate banking, increased services and powers for banks and other questions must be resolved.
"The ultimate test will be figuring out how to insure that consumers have access to the widest range of services and products in a system that provides economic stability."
CONSUMER LITERACY: On a recent survey of consumer knowledge conducted by CFA, only 54 percent of the respondents answered basic consumer questions correctly.
"We are in a constantly changing society," says Ann Windom Wallace, the new director of the United States Office of Consumer Affairs. "But current programs are not moving fast enough to keep up."
ENERGY: 50 percent of the oil consumed in America is imported. This fact was brough to mind dramatically by recent events in the Middle East, says Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev), chairman of the Consumer Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "The war gives us a small window of opportunity to enact a national energy policy - before memory fades."
The country needs to get back to looking at alternative fuel sources, he says, "but conservation also has to be a part of our policy."