More product clarity is coming, but also housing, job concerns
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — Even as they continue to worry about a weak housing market and anemic job growth, U.S. families can at least celebrate a new food-safety bill, extension of unemployment benefits for some jobless workers, and the likelihood of more disclosures on a variety of consumer products, from toys to mortgages, in 2011.
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"2011 will be a positive and important year for consumer access to important safety information," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission's public database for reporting safety incidents is scheduled to launch in March at SaferProducts.gov, which already features important CPSC information. The database will compile reports about dangerous products, with the idea that increased sharing of information will lead to safer products and consumers.
The database "is a major leap forward in the effort to increase consumer access to useful product-safety information," Weintraub said. "The database will provide consumers with access to lifesaving information and will provide CPSC with information to help it to more nimbly identify and act upon safety hazards."
In July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog agency created as part of the bank-reform law, will be up and running, though it may be a while before it finalizes any new rules. A top mission for the CFPB is to clarify the sometimes dizzying terms of consumer financial products, such as mortgages and credit cards, helping consumers to make smarter and less costly decisions. Safer consumer products will also support a more stable financial system, supporters say.
"The sun will soon be shining brighter for consumers looking for bank tricks or unsafe household products," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director with U.S. PIRG, an advocacy group.
The CFPB, he said, "will start making credit-card and other bank contracts simpler, will make it easier to shop for financial products and will become the first financial regulator ever that encourages communication with and complaints from consumers."
Some companies and industry participants have pushed back on both the dangerous-product database, and the watchdog bureau for financial products. But, while some confusion may come along with new rules and increased information, families stand to benefit overall.
Reason to worry
Still, despite some reasons to cheer, it's clear families have a lot to worry about. While the economy has been showing signs of life, the housing and job markets, which are closely tied, continue to struggle.
"Home prices across the country continue to fall," according to the most recent S&P/Case-Shiller report.
And when it comes to the labor market, job-creation levels have been too weak to take a large chunk out of the unemployment rate, economists say. Economists expect nonfarm payrolls this year to gain an average of about 170,000 per month, according to Blue Chip Financial Forecasts.
On Friday, the government will report on jobs for December. Wall Street is looking for a gain of 145,000 nonfarm payrolls, and for the unemployment rate to tick down to 9.7%, from 9.8% now.
Persistent economic weakness is taking a toll on consumers. The Conference Board recently reported that its gauge of consumer confidence declined in December on concerns about jobs.
Elsewhere, a recent report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that 25% of people said "their household has had trouble paying medical bills over the past year," and 54% said "they have delayed needed medical care because of cost."
Other triumphs for consumers, families
The government's stimulus plans have been no panacea. Still, families have benefitted from federal programs, and are likely to continue to do so.
For one, the federal government will continue to fund extended unemployment-insurance benefits through the end of this year. For families in distress, these benefits can mean avoiding poverty.
While conservative lawmakers have decried widening the deficit to fund jobless benefits, these payments help families to afford the basics, such as food and housing. Unemployment-insurance benefits also function as relatively effective stimulus to the greater economy because the funds tend to be quickly spent by needy families.
Another triumph for families is the food-safety overhaul that President Barack Obama is scheduled to sign into law Tuesday. The food-safety legislation expands the government's oversight over the food supply and gives regulators the authority to order recalls.
And while U.S. workplaces are not the world's most family-friendly, analysts say the health-care reform law could help our youngest citizens: babies. The law calls for providing employees with "reasonable break time" to express breast milk.
The Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that "an additional 165,000 mothers annually will breastfeed until an infant is at least six months old," thanks to the pumping provision.
"More than one million mothers and their children will be affected over the course of the next six years, with attendant health benefits for both mothers and infants," according to IWPR. "Longer-term effects due to any reduced stigma attached to breastfeeding and breast-milk expression could raise these figures."
Ruth Mantell is a MarketWatch reporter based in Washington.
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