Hits, misses from DOE on college pricing tool

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The Washington Post “Color of Money” columnist, Michelle Singletary, and I have something in common. We are both sending a kid to college next year. A recent column is focused on the financial realities of paying for college, and she is none too impressed with a new tool provided by the Department of Education to price out the cost of college. It’s available here. I agree with Singletary’s critique of the site, but I also see a lot of value, and I’ll get to that later.

Singletary wants the site to include a financial aid shopping sheet and she notes that the Obama Administration apparently will have 600 colleges providing financial aid information on the site as of 2013-2014. There will be several important pieces of information, including the costs for the year, estimate of monthly payments graduates would expect to make on federal student loans. Singletary says “and they will supply information about the percent of students who enroll, graduate and repay their loans.” Actually that information is there now and I found that incredibly helpful as a parent.

So here’s what I liked about the site. I have an aversion for for-profit colleges, as I’ve noted in this blog previously. I think they steal money from largely lower-income, military, and minority students, charge ridiculous tuition and when they do even provide a degree – their default rates are very high – that degree is often worth little in the marketplace.

I tested the information available on the site. I plugged in Strayer University in DC, a for-profit entity, to the search engine. Average tuition is $29,000+, graduation rates are 22.7 percent, and the loan default rate is 13.9 percent. Compare that to Catholic University, a well-regarded and longstanding nonprofit university, also in DC. It may be the least difficult of the four major universities in DC to get into. Tuition is $34,000, graduation rates are 68.3 percent, and default rates are 1.7 percent. Yes, it costs $5,000 more a year than Strayer, but your chances of graduating are far greater and your chances of defaulting on your student loans are far lower.

Let’s try Georgetown University, also highly regarded and in DC, and very selective. Tuition is $26,000. Graduation rates are 93.8 percent and default rates are 1.3 percent. What does that tell you? If you go, you’re likely to graduate and you are very unlikely to default. That’s a good investment.

To my mind, Catholic and Georgetown are priced similarly to Strayer, but are far better investments I think this information is critical for parents and students of all ages. The information I’d like to see added to the site now is how easily graduates find jobs and what they make once they get those jobs. The site wasn’t able to provide that critical information. I have seen that somewhere but I wasn’t able to locate that here. In the next few months, I hope the Education Department make that available.

Thanks to Michelle Singletary for giving these new tools much-needed publicity. The sites are far from perfect, but they do provide some critical information that savvy consumers should be able to use to make a good investment in theirs or their children’s education.

HUD expose reveals troubling problems

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Government agencies can be a tremendous boon to consumer protection. Examples abound: the Food and Drug Administration pulls a dangerous drug off the market or forces the recall of products contaminated with salmonella or E. Coli. The Federal Trade Commission holds a hearing on cramming on phone lines, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission looks at hazards to children from lead paint or dangerous toys.

Despite their good work, all government agencies need oversight from Congress, an Inspector General, a local town counsel, or state legislature in order to operate effectively and efficiently.

That clearly didn’t happen with the federal housing agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Washington Post’s recent expose on HUD’s utterly lackadaisical oversight and squandering of precious federal dollars used for housing projects is depressing. HUD allowed local housing agencies to dole out millions to troubled developers who started but didn’t finish jobs, leaving poor and middle class citizens in dire need of housing assistance without any recourse.

Twenty-eight thousand so-called affordable housing projects have had work started but have ultimately been left standing and are incomplete. In Prince Georges County outside of Washington DC, a nonprofit development company received $750,000 in 2005 to build dozens of homes. Six years later not a single house has been built. No one knows what happened to the money. It seems that HUD has a penchant for giving money to developers that have no land, permits, financial capacity, or commitments for private financing.

What I don’t understand is this: anyone who has had the good fortune to get a government grant is also faced with a pile of papers and dates and reports to comply with. This is a result of ensuring that those spending government funds – taxpayer funds – are held accountable. Why don’t those rules apply to developers who deal with HUD? What happens to the oversight of federal agencies that deal with the poor and disenfranchised? And where is Congress when it should be doing that ever-important oversight job?

None of this is good for the reputation of government, which, as I said at the outset, is empowered to protect the interests of all of the citizens and is critical for consumer protection because the market will never perform that function. We hope the Washington Post expose will help to turn things around at HUD and ensure that those who most need housing protections get the services they need.

Drink up! Tap water key to dental health

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The Washington Post had an interesting piece yesterday by writer Juliet Eilperin about using filtered or bottled water when she was pregnant and losing out on the important benefits that fluoridation in tap water provides. What I found interesting is that she expressed surprise about this fact. If a reporter for the Washington Post doesn’t know this important health information, then we need to do a whole lot more educating.

Bottled water consumption has doubled over the past decade and as a result, the exposure to fluoride from tap water, which can not only prevent tooth decay, it can repair tooth decay, has been reduced as well. Eilperin quotes a professor of dental sciences who says we should “look at this issue.” That’s an understatement. Eilperin opted for bottled water because of various trace chemicals found in the District of Columbia’s water system that are potentially harmful to health. She’s right that water that contains dangerous concentrations of harmful chemicals can be a threat to health of adults and children. But whether DC’s water reaches those levels is another question and whether it’s the right calculus to trade away the benefits of fluoride because of fear of these trace chemicals is another matter. That really does need to be studied. I also live in DC and make a point of drinking the water here and using ice cubes from DC water for my family because I want all of us to benefit from the fluoride. I guess I’ve made the decision that having healthy teeth is more important than worrying about ingesting tiny concentrations of chemicals.

But the value of fluoride cannot be understated. United States municipalities began adding it to public drinking water systems in the 1940s. Today, about 65 percent of Americans get fluoridated tap water, including 95 percent of people in Virginia, 99 percent in Maryland, and 100 percent in the District. It’s a huge public health advancement, because tooth decay and dental disease has such a ripple effect on health. If a child has a toothache, she can’t go to school, her parent has to take time off work to see a dentist, and the costs involved can be very high. For families with low and moderate income, dental care can be prohibitively expensive. So fluoride, as a prevention tool, is a very important health measure. And for an adult with tooth decay, missing a front tooth can prevent them from getting a job or getting a promotion.

Eilperin’s DC dentist told her that after officials began fluoridating public water supplies, “the cavities rate was cut in half. The only thing they could attribute it to was fluoridating the water.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies fluoridation of public drinking water as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century, noting that studies show it reduces cavities in adolescents by between 8 and 37 percent, and among adults by 20 to 40 percent.

Still, a South Australia study conducted between 1991 and 1995 showed that children who drank only rainwater and bottled water had a 52.7 percent higher rate of cavities in their baby teeth than those who drank only public, fluoridated tap water.

Not all filtered or bottled waters are totally devoid of fluoride: Brita filters do not strip it out of tap water, and some bottled brands such as Nursery Water advertise that they add the mineral. The ADA has introduced a certification program for foods and beverages that are beneficial to oral health, including fluoridated bottled water, in part to encourage bottlers to provide optimally fluoridated water.

Martha Ann Keels, the division chief of pediatric dentistry at Duke University, tells parents that taking a fluoride supplement (if you don’t drink fluoridated tap water) as effective as fluoride toothpaste in helping your teeth resist the impact of acid they’re exposed to during the day.

“The main benefit of fluoride is topical: You put it on the enamel to recharge it,” Keels said. “It’s like putting shoe polish on your shoe.”

That sounds good to me. Oral health is a critical component of overall health, and we need to spread the word about the importance of brushing with fluoridated toothpaste twice a day, drinking tap water wherever possible, and seeing the dentist twice a year. The benefits will pay off exponentially.

Kudos to Wash Post for exposing troubling farmworker kids’ stories

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Sunday’s Washington Post featured a compelling – and sad – story that reaffirms NCL’s concerns about farmworker kids. In “A Harvest of Reduced Expectations,” by reporter Kevin Sieff, the youngsters interviewed describe constantly moving from town to town during the school year – following their farmworker parents, showing up at new schools in the middle of the year, and failing to enjoy any continuity in their education. As a result, many drop out.

One teenage girl talked about living in farmworker’s quarters, which are typically run down and lacking in the niceties so many of today’s teens take for granted – a good bed, a desk on which to do homework, regular hours for meals and bedtimes. One boy is pictured sitting on his bed reading over his homework; he has no desk and lives in a threadbare makeshift living quarters.

But most troubling in the teenage girl’s story is that though she is glad to be able to be with her father and take care of her siblings, she is often surrounded by farmworkers who are NOT there with their wives and families. During the weekends many of these men bring prostitutes back to the quarters where these children live.

Reid Maki at NCL has worked tirelessly with the other members of the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs, to gain passage of the CARE Act, which will help to get farmworker kids out of the fields and in school full-time. This Washington Post article is particularly well headlined: A Harvest of Reduced Expectations; the piece does a great job of shining a light on the substandard and unacceptable living conditions of so many farmworkers – and their kids. Let’s pass CARE and get these kids into schools where they will be learning on a continuous basis and not exposed to a world that is hardly fit for adults, let alone children.

Kiln Workers in Pakistan

Earlier this month, the Washington Post ran a piece on the terrible working conditions of kiln workers in Pakistan. People spend their entire lives under grueling labor and breathing toxic fumes.  Entire families are indebted to the kiln owners, and the pay is so low that they have little opportunity of ever repaying their debts.  If they move to work at another kiln, their debt follows them. If they try to escape their life of virtual serfdom, they are chased down.The article interviewed a kiln worked named Abdul Wakil, who explained, “The problem is that you can never earn enough to leave. If your wife needs an operation or the rainy seasons lasts too long, you have to borrow from the kiln owners… the debt stays with you, sometimes for your whole life.”

Even children are pulled into this system of bondage through debt.  As young as six, kids are taken out of school to help work on the kiln. Wakil’s son, age 7, is already rolling up mud balls for his father. The article describes the life of Zarfran Khan, “a bright-eyed, 8-year-old quarry boy.”  “I liked school,” he says, “but I don’t go there anymore.”

Born into a life of perpetual debt, these kids never have the option of an education or of trainings in other skills. Knowing only the life of a kiln worker, they end up starting their own families in the same dangerous places, and the cycle repeats itself.

The National Consumers League established the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) in 1989 to end the exploitation of children in the workplace.  It is a top priority for us to spread awareness of the child exploitation in workplaces around the world. NCL and the American Federation of Teachers currently co-chair the CLC.

Progress is being made on child labor rights in the region, as earlier this week the Dehli High Court in India asked the government to start action to eliminate child labor from the state of Delhi in six months. This is an important step to end child labor exploitation, and we think that this could end up being a model for other state and national governments in the region. We hope that the Pakistani government can place a higher priority on ending child labor exploitation, so that kids like Zarfran will be able to get an education and escape their lives of perpetual poverty.

Downey’s Perkins Bio a Must-Read

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

It’s rare for me to read a work of nonfiction that is a page turner, but I’m reading such a book right now. It’s the new biography of nation’s first female cabinet member and Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. The author is the former Washington Post business reporter Kirsten Downey, and she has produced a riveting biographical sketch of Perkins, who changed her name from Fannie to Frances because she thought the latter was more dignified. I didn’t want the book to end; I pored over each chapter as though I was reading a work of great suspense, eager for the next chapter.

The book title is “Woman Behind the New Deal – The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of  Labor and His Moral Conscience,” and it’s written with clarity and filled with valuable nuggets of information, has a feminist perspective, and includes a unique perspective that is not found in the usual accounts of this New Deal era.

The National Consumers League figures large in the life of Frances Perkins. Florence Kelley, the League’s first leader, spoke at Perkins’ college, Mt. Holyoke, in 1902, and Perkins was captivated by this powerful orator. Kelley spoke about her new organization, the National Consumers League, and its efforts to eradicate child labor and eliminate sweatshops. Kelley was fiery, energetic, and filled with idealism. Perkins, after graduating from college, ran the League’s New York chapter, focusing on four areas: poor conditions in cellar bakeries, long hours and poor wages for children, child labor, and workplace fire hazards.

Shopgirls suffered some of the worst conditions working for Bloomingdales, Altman’s  and Macy’s: they worked very long hours (14-16 hours) for very low pay. While lobbying for the League, Perkins developed a friendship with Former President Teddy Roosevelt, who endorsed the NCL’s efforts to restrict child labor in a letter he allowed Perkins’ to circulate widely.

Again, while lobbying for the League in Albany, Perkins became acquainted with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When he was elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor. Perkins went on to serve all of FDR’s four terms – the last was cut short by his untimely death – but FDR so relied on and trusted Perkins he rejected her offers to resign as Labor Secretary. All the while, her fellow cabinet members – all male – mocked her style of speaking and were jealous of her close relationship to FDR.

Perkins is responsible for so much more than any of us probably realize. That is why Downey’s book title is so apt. As labor secretary, Perkins worked to pass unemployment insurance, Social Security, and the law setting wage and hour restrictions known as the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In an interesting historical twist, Downey suggests that Perkins was probably also responsible, indirectly, for the election of Harry Truman as president, once he ran on his own after serving out FDR’s aborted final term. Perkins persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt to endorse Truman, something she had been reluctant to do because she was unhappy that the new president had let Perkins go as Labor Secretary in his new cabinet. Eleanor thought it was important to have a woman in the cabinet.

But Perkins prevailed on Eleanor, who was a highly respected democrat in 1948 whose voice carried a lot of weight, to make a strong appeal to democrats to support Truman for President. As history reminds us, this was a very close race between Truman and Thomas Dewey, so much so that newspapers called the election for Dewey. Eleanor’s voice probably turned the tide of history and resulted in Truman’s ultimate victory.

Downey brings out aspects of Perkins’ life (her husband was bi-polar, couldn’t work for much of his life, spending many years in an institution, and her daughter suffered from mental illness as well) and career that have been missing in other biographies of the first female labor secretary. Perkins soldiered on, never allowing prejudices to hold her back.

Today we have another female labor secretary, Hilda Solis, who works at DOL in the federal building named for Frances Perkins and is supportive of the needs and concerns of working men and women. This book is a timely and invaluable contribution to our understanding of the New Deal and programs intended to provide that social safety net that made America a model for the rest of the world.

Reining In Shameful Executive Pay

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Congress did it: it capped corporate pay for the first time in our nation’s history. The stimulus package Congress adopted at the end of last week goes further in capping executive salaries than even the Obama administration recommended. Nonetheless, the President has signed the bill into law. The stimulus pay cap applies to top execs and the highest paid employees at all 359 banks that have already received government assistance, according to the Washington Post. Panic has set in among executives; there’s talk of mass exodus among the top brass at companies where pay has been capped.

“That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus,” James F. Reda told the Washington Post. Reda is founder and owner of his own compensation consulting firm. “And you know these companies that are in trouble are not going to pay much of an annual dividend.”

Now let’s get this straight. Executives of companies that took on too much risk and saw their firms collapse had to turn to the government for a taxpayer funded bailout – which they readily sought and accepted. Now when the government wants to put strings on that money, the talk is that these same executives, who failed to keep their companies solvent in the first place, will walk away because they need higher salaries – $500,000 isn’t enough for these kingpins even if it is 8 1/2 times the salary of the average American family. (figuring that Americans’ average annual salary is around $61,000) .

Mr. Reda said only a handful of big companies pay chief executives and other senior executives $500,000 or less in total compensation. He said such limits will make it hard for the companies to recruit and keep executives, most of whom could earn more money at other firms.

But the financial world brought this on themselves, with kingpins such as Lloyd Blankstein of Goldman Sachs, who made $68.5 million in 2007, setting Wall Street salary records. Richard Wagoner, the chief executive of failing General Motors, made $14.4 million in 2007 (much of it in stocks and options on a base salary of $1.6 million). (Read more on this from the Wall Street Journal.)

These shameless compensation packages and bonuses are taking place in a year when millions of Americans have their lost jobs and with it, their health insurance. Millions of homeowners are facing mortgage foreclosures, and food pantries are facing unprecedented demand. The rich have seen their incomes grow by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years while the wages of those on the bottom have stagnated. According to Lane Kenworthy, Professor at the University of Arizona, in 1979 household income among those in the top 1% averaged $325,000 (in 2005 dollars). By 2005 that had increased to nearly $1.1 million. Among the poorest 20% of households, average income was $14,500 in 1979 and $15,500 in 2005. Among the middle 60% of households, average income rose from $42,000 to $51,000.

So Congress is understandably reacting to constituent outrage about the pay packages of the top execs. For years policy makers and shareholder activists have tried to figure out how to curb outsize executive pay, with little success. Now they’ve finally done something. We agree with the President, who told NBC Nightly News: “If the taxpayers are helping you, then you have certain responsibilities to not be living high on the hog.”