The Office of Consumer Affairs
March 1998 Report
DOC Consumer-Related Activities
The following agencies are included in this report:
BUREAU OF THE CENSUS
-- Metropolitan counties grew by 1.3 percent between 1996 and 1997, roughly two and a half times the rate of 0.5 percent for nonmetropolitan counties and higher than the national growth rate of 0.9 percent.
-- Of the nation=s 2,420 counties with at least 10,000 people in 1997, three of the 10 fastest growing are located in Colorado, another three in northern Georgia and all 10 are within or border on metropolitan areas.
-- In general, the fastest-growing one-fifth of the U.S. counties were primarily in the South (56 percent) and West (24 percent). Nineteen percent were in the Midwest and only 1 percent were in the Northeast.
For questions about the data, contact David Rain or Marc Perry (301-457-2419). The Internet address is: http://www.census.gov/population/www/estimates/countypop.html.
ECONOMICS AND STATISTICS ADMINISTRATION
Selected Consumer-Related Information
Consumer prices increased a slight 0.1 percent in February following no increase in January. Over the last 12 months consumer prices are up only 1.4 percent. The core rate of inflation (prices excluding food and energy) increased 0.3 percent in February and 2.3 percent for the past 12 months. Over the same period energy prices dropped 8.8 percent and food prices were up only 1.9 percent.
Income after taxes increased 0.6 percent in February following a strong 0.8-percent gain in January.
Consumer spending was up 0.4 percent in February after a 0.7 percent rise in January. In February spending was concentrated in outlays for nondurable goods and services with no gain in durable goods outlays. A surge in durable goods outlays accounted for the more rapid increase in January.
Automobile sales declined 1.2 percent in each of the first two months of 1998. Light truck sales declined 2.8 percent in February following a small 1.4 percent rise in January.
Housing starts jumped 6 percent in February following a slight 0.2 percent gain in January and a 1.1 percent rise in December. Total starts for all of 1997 virtually matched the high levels attained in 1996.
Mortgage commitment interest rates continued near the 7 percent level.
OCA Released New Brochure on NAFTA: In cooperation with the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF), OCA released a new brochure, The North American Free Trade Agreement: What it means for U.S. consumers. The brochure is available through the OCA or the DSEF at: Direct Selling Education Foundation, 1666 K Street, NW, Suite 1010, Washington, DC 20006, (202) 293-5760; Fax: (202) 293-7483. It is also available on OCA=s web site at: http://www.doc.gov/oca.
The Universal Service Fund (USF): Making the Most of the E-Rate and Your Technology $$$=s: The Director of Consumer Affairs attended a conference in Tarrytown, New York, which was sponsored by Per Scholas, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to help schools, libraries and nonprofits get the technology they need at the lowest possible cost. Presenters focused on the USF and the nuts and bolts of applying for education-rate (e-rate) funding.
Outreach: As part of a technology committee, Director worked with the Nannie Helen Burroughs School on their submission for e-rate funding under the USF. Director also met with officials of the Kenilworth-Parkside Housing Development to discuss issues specifically focused on children and low-income consumers.
Major Consumer Forums:
-- 44th Annual Conference of American Council on Consumer Interests (ACCI): The Director represented the Department at the ACCI=s 44th annual conference, AGlobal Policy: Local Issues,@ in Washington, D.C. Highlights included a presentation about consumerism in Eastern Europe as countries shift from centralized to free markets and democratized governments and a presentation by Allan Asher, Deputy Chairperson, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
-- Consumer Federation of America=s (CFA) Consumer Assembly 1998, AConsumers in an Era of Global Change@: Director and staff attended CFA=s annual consumer assembly. Highlights included presentations by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Ralph Nader and a discussion about the AInternet, Boon or Bane to Consumers,@ which included representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Center for the Study of Services.
1998 Better Business Bureau (BBB) National Torch Award: Director attended the 1998 presentation of the BBB=s National Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics, which honors companies committed to outstanding ethical business practices. This year=s winners included Praxair, Inc., Danbury, Connecticut (large-size business award winner); Highlights for Children, Inc., Columbus, Ohio (medium-size business award winner); Fletcher Communications, Waco, Texas (small-size business winner); and Abt Electronics & Appliance, Morton Grove, Illinois (honorable-mention award winner).
D.C. Chapter of Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP): Staff attended the March meeting of the D.C. chapter of SOCAP for a presentation about the Internet and privacy. Speakers included Becky Burr of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and a representative of the Direct Marketing Association who discussed efforts to protect consumers= privacy.
Constituent Contacts: During March 1998, OCA responded to 194 requests from constituents.
Asia-Pacific Business Outlook Conference: The tenth annual Asia-Pacific Business Outlook conference was held, March 16-18, 1998, in Los Angeles, California. The annual event was organized by the University of Southern California=s Marshall School of Business, International Business Education and Research Program and ITA=s U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service. The three-day gathering included industry workshops, outlook sessions, topical seminars, and one-on-one problem-solving meetings in a hands-on atmosphere. Events were conducted by Asia-based American business executives and U.S. Senior Commercial Officers assigned to 15 countries, as well as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.
Market Development Cooperator Program: The Commerce Department=s Market Development Cooperator Program (MDCP) is a competitive matching grants program providing Federal assistance to states, trade associations, chambers of commerce, world trade centers, and other nonprofit industry groups to help underwrite the start-up costs of creative export marketing ventures. MDCP applications may be targeted for any market in the world and any industry covered by ITA=s industry units. Examples of activities which applicants might propose include: 1) opening an overseas representative office; 2) commissioning overseas market research, participating in overseas trade exhibitions and trade missions, and hosting reverse trade missions; 3) overseas U.S. product demonstrations; 4) export seminars; 5) technical trade servicing; 6) joint promotions of U.S. goods or services with foreign customers; 7) training of foreign nationals; 8) working with organizations in the foreign marketplace responsible for setting standards and for testing products; 9) publishing an export resource guide or an export product directory; and 10) establishing an electronic business information system. Two interesting stories about recent activities as a result of grants provided by this program can be found in the March, 1998, issue of Business America, the ITA magazine of international trade.
McArthur Takes JASON Argonauts on Research Expedition: The NOAA Ship McArthur has done just about everything from chasing down plumes of hot ocean water containing mysterious microbes from seafloor volcanic eruptions, to photographing blue whales migrating along the west coast of the United States. In March the ship, part of the Commerce Department=s NOAA fleet, took a contingent of its youngest scientists ever on a virtual field trip to California=s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. These scientists were student @Argonauts@ with this year=s JASON Project, Oceans of Earth and Beyond.
The JASON Project expedition, led by Bob Ballard, discoverer of the sunken ocean liner Titanic, was broadcast to millions of students worldwide via satellite and the Internet. The expedition is part of the JASON Foundation for Education program to excite and engage students in science and technology, and provide professional development for their teachers through the use of advanced interactive telecommunications. Expedition activities began March 16 at the Monterey Bay Aquarium; the McArthur joined the expedition on March 23 and participated until the expedition ended on March 27.
NOAA Marks Fiftieth Anniversary of First Tornado Forecast: In the midst of this year=s spring severe weather and tornado season, meteorologists in Oklahoma and around the country commemorated the first tornado forecast issued, 50 years ago on March 25, 1948, that established today=s organized severe weather warning, watch, and research programs that protect the nation. From March 23-25, 1998, NOAA=s National Weather Service and National Severe Storms Laboratory, in cooperation with the University of Oklahoma and the Air Force, hosted an extended celebration in Norman, Oklahoma, and at Tinker Air Force Base as a tribute to the 50 years of tornado forecasting.
Spring=s Flood Potential Bears El Niņo Fingerprints; Commerce Secretary William M. Daley Announces Disaster Reduction Initiative: California and the Southeast United States, which have felt the brunt of El Niņo-related severe weather this year, are most at risk for spring flooding, according to NOAA=s experts who released their annual National Hydrologic Outlook in March. Preliminary information on snow cover, soil conditions, and stream flow conditions suggests that there are no areas of extreme concern this spring. Even with the impact of El Niņo, this spring does not look as bad as the spring of 1997.
Secretary Daley announced a new Commerce Department Natural Disaster Reduction Initiative (NDRI) in the President=s Fiscal Year 1999 Budget. The NDRI brings together for the first time the resources of the Commerce Department to help build disaster resistant communities and jobs. It involves a three-pronged approach. First, it seeks to lower weather-related losses through improved construction techniques. An additional $3 million a year will go for research on wind, seismic, and fire engineering to make buildings more disaster resistant. Second, the NDRI will improve prediction of damaging weather and related river flooding. Third, the NDRI will help communities and businesses safeguard jobs in hazard-prone areas. The President is requesting $3 million per year of new funding for economic development to allow the Department of Commerce to work in public-private partnership to build disaster-resistant communities.
A New Wave in Education--Bringing the Ocean to the Classroom: NOAA released an educators= guide to teachers. More than 55,000 teachers around the country received a Year of the Ocean Educators Guide that gives seventh- and eighth-grade science teachers new ideas for teaching about the ocean. The United Nations has declared 1998 the International Year of the Ocean to educate the public about the important role the ocean plays in our daily lives.
Health Care, Education Excellence Guides Now Available: Criteria designed to help health care and education organizations improve their services and overall performance are available now from NIST. The criteria are based on the performance excellence criteria for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, managed by NIST with the private sector.
NIST developed the current performance excellence criteria for health care and education organizations with funding from the U.S. Departments of Veteran Affairs and Education.
The program called ALOFT-FT also enables users to estimate the chemical concentrations in segments from ground level to the top of the plume. ALOFT-FT, which can be run on a Windows-based personal computer, requires as input data wind speed and variability, atmospheric temperature, number of fires, and heat release rate. Results can be displayed as downwind, cross wind and vertical smoke concentration contours. NIST developed ALOFT-FT to aid in the planning process for intentional burning of crude oil spills on water. The program also can be used in predicting the smoke plume trajectory from other large outdoor fires such as that caused by a burning building. ALOFT-FT is available at http://flame.dfr.nist.gov/fire/aloft/aloft.html. The PC model is for smoke plumes forming over flat terrain. Future releases will incorporate complex terrain features.
Oh Baby! New Food Standard Improves Nutrition Labeling: Since when is baby food an advanced scientific ruler? Since scientists at the NIST recently issued Standard Reference Material (SRM) 2383, Baby Food Composite. This sophisticated measurement tool will help food processors and manufacturers more accurately assess the exact amount of vitamins, minerals, fat, protein, carbohydrates and calories in their products. NIST produced SRM 2383 to help the food industry meet requirements of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.
The Baby Food Composite standard is a blend of the ingredients found in commercially available baby foods, including orange juice, infant formula, corn, creamed spinach, carrots, beef, macaroni, and other foods. This blend is designed to represent measurement challenges in food analysis, rather than a typical infant diet. Chemists at NIST and collaborating laboratories carefully determined the concentration of fat, protein, carbohydrates, calories, carotenoids (such as beta-carotene) and many vitamins and minerals in the new standard. Food manufacturers can use the baby food standard to check the accuracy of their analytical methods and results and to evaluate the accuracy of their own in-house quality control standards. The Baby Food Composite SRM is one of a series of standards being developed to help meet food industry needs. Consumers also benefit by having more accurate nutritional information. SRM 2383 is now for sale in NIST=s SRM Program.
The Job Search Announcement Web site--http://www.fedworld.gov/jobs/jobsearch.html--now has a link that allows users to browse current open summertime positions. Announcements briefly describe the jobs and contain contact information for more details and application information. The Job Search Announcement database is updated each morning, Tuesday through Saturday.
Occupational Outlook Handbook: 1998-99 Edition (PB98-118151, $42 plus handling)--For more than 50 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics= Occupational Outlook Handbook has been a nationally recognized source of career information. Revised every two years, the Handbook describes what workers do on the job, working conditions, the training and education needed, earnings, and expected job prospects in a wide range of occupations. Employment in the approximately 250 occupations covered in the 1998-99 Handbook accounts for about six out of every seven jobs in the economy. The occupational information presented in this new edition should provide valuable assistance to individuals making decisions about their future work lives.
ASTM Collection Now Available at NTIS--ASTM has grown into one of the largest voluntary standards development systems in the world. ASTM publishes more than 10,000 standards on test methods, specifications, practices, guides, classifications, and terminology. ASTM covers metals, paints, plastics, textiles, petroleum, construction, energy, medical services and devices, computerized systems, electronics, and many other areas. Organized in 1898, ASTM is a not-for-profit organization that provides a forum for producers, users, customers, government, and academia to meet on common ground and write standards for materials, products, systems, and services. Consumers may review the list of available ASTM publications using the search engine at the online International Trade and Business Bookstore at http://tradecenter.ntis.gov.
World Health Day--To assist consumers in observing and celebrating World Health Day in April, the National Audiovisual Center at NTIS compiled a collection of health-related multimedia products that address global health concerns, especially emergent and re-emergent infectious diseases. This listing was included in orders shipped from NTIS in March.
Earth Day--The National Audiovisual Center at NTIS also compiled a listing of multimedia products to assist in the observance of Earth Day in April. The products listed not only educate consumers but also highlight the vital role all of us play in preserving and protecting our earth=s natural resources. These products will provide an informative and interesting addition to Earth Day activities. This listing was also included in orders shipped from NTIS in March.