Health care in America on trial this week

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This is a very big week for health care in America. The constitutionality of Affordable Care Act is being argued in the Supreme Court. This landmark legislation that provides near universal health care in America after many decades of failed attempts – and that groups like NCL have been working for throughout our history- is in hot dispute. Despite the fact that the United States remains the only Western country that doesn’t provide universal health care for its citizens, this one issue has generated more noise – on the right in particular – than practically anything else.

This highly unusual argument is going to be spread over three days. Tuesday the court will hear from proponents and opponents on the individual mandate’s constitutionality.

The law’s opponents include 26 states that are arguing that Congress has no power under the Constitution to order people to buy anything-and that if the law stands, Congress will have sweeping new authority to dictate our behavior. Also on the table is whether – if the individual mandate is struck, and I hope it isn’t because the law really doesn’t work without it – whether the rest of the law falls down.

One lower court has ruled that individual mandate is unconstitutional, but several others said it could remain. The thing is, the public wants people to be covered even if they have a pre-existing condition and parents want their kids covered til 26, especially since many young people don’t have jobs. Both are guarantees in the ACA.

The Court will also review requirements that poor people be covered by the states, and imposes new requirements on the states to ensure that this coverage is available. I agree with those who believe that this case may be the most important set of rulings since FDR’s New Deal legislation was challenged at the Supreme Court.

Florence Kelley, NCL’s first leader, was stymied in many of her initiatives – minimum wage, maximum hours and child labor laws when the Court struck such laws she worked so hard to get enacted. (though she – and Justice Brandeis won the right for women to be covered by maximum hours laws in Muller v. Oregon) But ultimately, justice won out and all are laws and protections we cherish today. I can only hope that the Affordable Healthcare Act withstands the challenges and survives intact.

But if we lose this round, and I don’t think we will, I expect that justice will ultimately win out and Americans will enjoy universal health care at long last.

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Unemployment benefits may rise

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Right now, the federal minimum wage rate applies everywhere except in states that set higher minimum rates, where 18 states have minimums higher than the federal rate and 23 have the same requirement. Some jobs, such as on small farms, are exempt from minimum wage rules.

Last month, the minimum wage automatically rose in eight states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington — that index it to cost-of-living increases.  USA Today recently produced this helpful chart on state-by-state minimum wages.

There’s been some recent activity in states around the country to raise the minimum wage; bills were introduced to boost the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 in New York and from $8.25 to $9.75 in Connecticut, indexing further increases to inflation. Seven other states —New Jersey,  Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, California, and Missouri — are also weighing basic wage increases.

The National Employment Law Project, an organization that does advocacy and research on behalf of the working poor,  says the federal minimum should be raised to $10 to make up for the failure to keep pace with inflation in the 1970s. Since the recession began, the inflation-adjusted salaries of low-wage workers have fallen 2.3 percent.

About 1.8 million of the US’s  73 million hourly workers earned the federal minimum wage in 2010 — many in the retail, restaurant and hospitality sectors — but the fact is that people earning a bit more than minimum wage will see their compensation rise too. Noting that low-wage workers spend nearly all of their extra income, the Economic Policy Institute estimates such an increase would generate an extra $20 billion in economic output and 160,000 jobs.

Business groups  typically oppose minimum-wage increases because they  have to pay more in compensation and benefits. But this dance occurs every time the minimum wage goes up and business usually goes along with it. They come around because they understand ultimately that the more people at the lower end of the economic spectrum earn, the more they spend on the necessities – groceries, utilities, transportation, clothing  etc – all of which stimulates the economy and is ultimately good for business.  NCL’s Florence Kelley wrote the first minimum wage laws in the United States, and she was right  – these protections have proved critically important for those who work hard but earn the least.

Honoring Black History Month

February is Black History Month and a wonderful time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, and recognize  the role African Americans have played in shaping American history.

Black History Month is also a great opportunity to celebrate the National Consumers League’s historical connection to the Civil Rights Movement. NCL supported racial equality from the beginning; Florence Kelley, NCL’s first leader, was a founding member of the NAACP. During the New Deal, NCL called for including domestic and agricultural workers in labor laws and social security programs, and was alone among women’s groups in demanding racial justice. Lucy Mason, head of the League during the 1930s, also served on the NAACP’s board, and cautioned against “that tendency to believe that the colored worker needs less than the white worker.”

In honor of Back History Month, here are just a few events that helped shape the American workplace and secure equal treatment for consumers and workers across the nation. The events not only celebrate the many African American leaders and activists, but also serve to underscore the remarkable achievements we have made toward racial equality as a country in the past century:

1909: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is formed on February 12 in New York City

1910: The National Urban League is founded in New York City on September 29. The Urban League is organized to help African Americans secure employment and adjust to urban life

1925: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union organized by African American employees of the Pullman Company, was formed with Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph as its first president

1941: On June 25, President Franklin Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, desegregating war production plants and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).

1954: On May 17, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declares segregation in all public schools in the United States unconstitutional

1954: Attorney Frankie Muse Freeman (born Marie Frankie Muse),  serves as lead attorney for the NAACP in Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority , which ended racial discrimination in public housing in the city. Freeman was the first black woman to win a major civil rights case

1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed by Congress on July 2. The act bans discrimination in all public accommodations and by employers and establishes the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) to monitor compliance with the law.

1968: Congress enacts the Civil Rights Act of 1968,  which outlaws discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.

NCL proudly acknowledges Black History Month, salutes the accomplishments of all of the great historical figures and leaders who have worked for justice and equality for all, and looks to the future for the many equal rights achievements still to come!

Food stamp program crucial in times of need

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

It’s a mark of the terrible economy that more people are using food stamps, but the good news is that more than half of those newly benefiting are children. NCL’s founders would have said “hurrah” that the program is available at really tough economic times just like these, especially for kids.

When you look at the numbers—46.3 million people received food stamps—they represent a huge percentage of Americans: one in six, with a jump in the food stamp rolls of 8 percent over the past year. The Obama Administration says the program is more efficient than previously since benefits are provided electronically to recipients.

The Administration has cracked down on abuses, as it should. Benefits like these should be reserved for those who truly need them. We should have no patience for those who use a federal program to put money in their own pockets—including retailers who sell the prohibited cigarettes or alcohol using food stamps and take a commission for themselves. The Administration should throw the book at these folks, and they have—disqualifying 8,300 retailers from taking food stamps. And those who sell the food stamp benefits in exchange for cash on Craigslist should lose their access to the program permanently.

But these abuses shouldn’t diminish the critical importance of the program, which puts food on the plates of millions of the Americans in greatest need. Indeed, the food stamp program is one of the most successful of any of our government benefits. Our friends at the Food Action and Research Center, who work with hungry families and kids, note that “in the midst of one of the worst recessions this country has ever seen, food stamps kept very large numbers of families from going hungry. The program performed as it was intended to—it expanded to meet rising need, and the increased benefits helped millions afford enough nutrition for their households.”

Florence Kelley and Frances Perkins would be saddened by the fragile financial state of so many families, but they would be cheering the availability of this essential safety net for the poor.

A tribute to MLK

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This weekend we pay tribute to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy of  racial equality, racial unity, and non-violence. The National Consumers League has a deep connection to the cause of racial equality –  Florence Kelley, the League’s leader from 1899-1932, was a founding member of the NAACP. After last week’s violence in Tucson that left six dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords hospitalized with a grave bullet wound to the head, Dr. King’s message of nonviolence is needed now more than ever.  The political landscape in the United States is polarized – Tea Party activists have captured the emotions of the right, and elected 40 new members of Congress who seem to believe  government is the enemy. In the aftermath of this terrible attack in Tucson, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are looking for ways to display unity. We could sure use someone like Dr King today to help bridge that gap — not a politician but someone on the outside who can be a voice both of protest and reconciliation.

Dr. King consistently spoke about what was right, what was moral, no matter how unpopular. He and his followers paid a heavy price for their stance: in the quest for equal treatment for Blacks and their determination to dismantle Jim Crow,  some of King’s followers paid with their lives. Others were jailed, attacked by dogs, and  beaten by baton-wielding police. Yet they refused to attack back, preaching nonviolence that ultimately won the day and transformed America’s beliefs on racial equality.

Dr. King  was consistent – when he saw prejudice and wrongdoing, he spoke out,  even if it didn’t specifically address the cause of racial equality or was unpopular among members of his own community. For example, Dr. King opposed the war in Vietnam as early as 1967, tying his position to his belief in nonviolence.

I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men. I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Similarly, Dr. King, in the face of Anti-Semitism from some members of the Black community,  stood with Jewish Americans . “Antisemitism, the hatred of the Jewish people, has been and remains a blot on the soul of mankind. In this we are in full agreement. So know also this: anti-Zionist is inherently Anti-Semitic, and ever will be so.”

This weekend, as we pay tribute to Dr. King, a man whose bravery, eloquence, and righteous commitment to nonviolence in the name of racial equality, we’re reminded in the aftermath of last week’s violence in Arizona how much his voice is missed today.

Breastfeeding denied coverage by IRS

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Since our founding in 1899, the National Consumers League has worked hard to advocate for the better health of women and children. Florence Kelley, the League’s first leader, grew up in a family in which five of her mother’s eight children died from infection or disease. Babies during that time – the period right after the Civil War – were relatively safe while breastfeeding. Once weaned, they were exposed to illness from unsanitary food, water, and milk. Today, though we pasteurize milk and have access to safe drinking water, breastfeeding remains the best option for babies and their mothers, at least for the first 6 months of a child’s life.

That is why NCL was disturbed to read about an Internal Revenue Service decision that denies nursing mothers the ability to use their tax-sheltered health care accounts to pay for breast pumps and other breastfeeding supplies. NCL has written to the IRS to ask that the agency reverse its decision.

According to IRS Publication 502, reimbursable items include those that aid in the “prevention of disease.” The IRS apparently has determined that breast-feeding does not help in the prevention of disease. NCL could not disagree more. Medical evidence that far more widespread breastfeeding would not only “prevent disease” in the United States, but would save our health care system billions of dollars is overwhelming.

Consider the following evidence about the myriad health benefits to both breastfeeding mother and child:

  • According to a Harvard study published in April of this year, if 90 percent of American families would comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths, nearly all of which would be among infants ($10.5 billion and 741 deaths at 80 percent compliance).

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that breastfed infants have a lower risk of contracting ear infections, stomach viruses, atopic dermatitis, type 1 and 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, and other health problems.

  • Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding because of lower risk of contracting type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression (PPD).
  • Breastfed infants typically need fewer sick care visits; Congress recently acknowledged the importance of breastfeeding in landmark health care reform legislation by requiring that workplaces provide women with a private place to nurse or use a breast pump.

As Dr. Robert W. Block, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) noted in the New York Times this week, “The old adage that breast-feeding is a child’s first immunization really is true … So we need to do everything we can to remove the barriers that make it difficult.”

We agree with Dr. Block. And NCL reached out to our friends at AAP to share our letter and join forces with those who work to protect and improve the health of babies.

NCL strongly believes we need to encourage, not discourage, barriers to widespread breastfeeding. As in Florence Kelley’s day and ours, breast-fed babies get the best of all protections. Unfortunately, the IRS determination NOT to allow parents to use their tax-sheltered flex accounts to cover the cost of breast pumps has the impact of further discouraging women from breastfeeding and directly undermines what is by every measure a critical practice for improved public health. We believe the cost of breast pumps should and must be covered cost in these flex plans. We hope that NCL’s voice, along with the voices of AAP and so many others, will help to press the IRS Commissioner to reverse his decision.

Kudos to Maggie’s Organics’ fair labor certified apparel

By Elizabeth Gardner, NCL public policy intern

It didn’t make much of a blip on the national news radar, but Maggie’s Organics recently broke new ground with their Fair Labor Certified Apparel Line. From the growers of the cotton to the spinners, knitters, dyers, cutters, sewers, screen-printers, and warehouse workers, this Michigan-based company’s spring apparel line is independently certified to hold to fair labor standards.

This label is one of the first of its kind in the clothing industry. Florence Kelley and the National Consumers League actually pioneered a White Label for cotton underwear way back in 1899. It certified that factories bearing the label treated their employees fairly. And nowadays there’s the Good Weave label, which assures rug buyers that they’re purchasing a child-labor free product. Today, though, there’s really been no simple way for consumers to check whether their clothes are tainted by child labor or exploitative labor practices—until now. It may only be a first step, but this new fair labor line is something that concerned consumers can be excited about.

The certification for Maggie’s Organics was completed by Scientific Certification Systems, and it verifies that at “every point in the supply chain” “fair and equitable labor practices” were used. With evidence far too often surfacing that major clothes retailers use child labor or sweatshops in their production lines, this label is a valuable resource for those of us who want to make sure that what we put on our backs didn’t cost workers before us the shirts off their backs.

Looking at the big picture, Maggie’s Organics is a small company. This label is solid start for businesses though, and if the other brands who have called up Maggie’s to find out about the process follow through and become certified, we’ll be making sure strides. Alongside FREE2WORK, which grades companies for their labor standards and is a great shopping resource, consumers can hopefully expect to see more resources like this continue to crop up.