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Consumer activism hits high gear as recession deepens

As the US recession deepens, consumer activism continues to increase, building on the momentum generated during the 1974 recession. From the White House to Davenport, Iowa, to New York City, the consumer movement across America is alive and healthier than ever before, says Midge Shubow of President Carter's Office of Consumer Affairs.

Miss Shubow is not alone in her assessment. Interviews with dozens of consumer activists in and out of government reveal:

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* Federal initiatives. Office of Consumer Affairs director Esther Peterson, in an joint appearance with President Carter June 10, announced the beginning of a major new consumer advocacy program within 43 federal agencies.

The program places consumer representatives in each agency and equips them with quick and direct access to agency directors. Besides processing consumer complaints in what is promised to be record time, these specialists will make sure a "consumer impact statement" is made on every major new step an agency takes.

* Grass-roots expansion. Thousands of new consumer groups have sprung up in the last decade, although they may not always be labeled as such. The nongovernmental public- interest research groups -- called PIRGs, for short -- have grown from 140 to around 170 in the last five years alone. They fight for everything from keeping the lid on electric utility rates to deceptive advertising practices.

Food cooperatives, in which shoppers band together to buy in bulk and sometimes have their own "storefront," have shot up from fewer than 100 before the 1974 recession to thousands today in big cities and tiny hamlets everywhere.

* Consumer education. Changing Times, the consumer magazine published by Kiplinger Washington Editors Inc. has seen its circulation soar by more than 300 ,000 since the beginning of the year.

"Historically, when the economy is in an upheavel our sales go up," says the publication's marketing manager Gwen Fitzpatrick.

Last fall, for the first time, the University of Massachusetts offered a consumer law course, which has become extremely popular.

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"There are [now] more pro-consumer people in government alone than we ever had," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the private, nonprofit Consumer Federation of America (CFA). "Yes, they have been under fire by big business, particularly the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), but part of the reason is because they've been trying to do more."

The FTC's fiscal 1980 budget of $65.5 million is the same as the previous year's, a fact that is of itself fairly remarkable considering the concerted congressional attacks on it by many Republicans. Its powers, however, were cut. Among other things, the FTC is now prohibited from investigating the insurance industry, and Congress has the power to veto new FTC rules, without the President's approval. But most consumer advocates claim the damage is comparatively mild.

What concerns them more is the coming presidential election.

"The future does look very uncertain because many of the public-interest advocates in government may be forced to resign if there's a change in administrations and Ronald Reagan becomes president," Mr. Brobeck warned. "We certainly wouldn't have an Esther Peterson in the administration."

Miss Peterson won high marks as a tough-nosed consumer advocate in the private sector before joining the Carter administration.

At the same time, Richard A. Borten, a consumer law professor at the University of Massachusetts and former executive director of the Boston Consumer's Council, says Miss Peterson's very presence in the administration has helped insulate it from the ire many in the consumer movement felt when the administration failed to produce a Cabinet level consumer department. Nevertheless, before President Carter, there never had even been a White House Office of Consumer Affairs.

Current economic conditions have brought subtle changes on consumers and the way they fight for their interests, experts say.

During the 1974 recession, boycotts of certain food items were prime tools used by angry shoppers to combat what they saw as excessive price increases.

But now, double-digit inflation has led many consumers to view higher prices as inevitable for almost everything, says Karen Borak, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.

This is at least part of the reason for the increased emphasis on consumer education. For example, consumers living on Staten Island here in New York, who might have joined a boycott five years ago, recently attended a city Department of Consumer Affairs conference called, "How to Beat the High Cost of Food," where tips on how to shop for bargains and use coupons and other information was provided.

Grass-roots groups now appear to be moving in one of two directions. Some groups form around specific issues such as petitioning state utility commissions to keep the lid on electricity rates. Others wear the guise of a community group but from time to time focus on specific issues such as tenants' rights.

In July, the Office of Consumer Affairs will publish profiles of just 90 of the thousands of consumers' groups.

One of those mentioned is both a government agency and an organization that targets a specific issue. The Hartford (Conn.) Fair Rent Commission, a city agency, was created in 1970 and now handles more than 100 cases a year involving unfair marketplace practices.

Growth in the hinterlands is such that the CFA, established in 1967 and is now, in effect, a Washington, D.C., lobby for a coalition of 220 grass-roots groups, also thinks in terms of expansion.

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