National News

Going beyond GDP to measure economic health

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 08:14

When it comes to measuring the health of a country's economy, using the nation's Gross Domestic Product is often the barometer of choice. But as more dollars change hands, why aren't the outcomes always better?

There's a new listing of 132 countries out today that uses 54 different indicators that together measure how well a country is doing in giving its citizens good lives. It's called the Social Progress Index. Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, says that although GDP is important, it doesn't tell the whole story. He joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the report. 

Court In Turkey Orders Twitter Service Restored

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 07:29

The social media site was blocked in the runup to last Sunday's local elections, but the ban was deemed a breach of free expression and ordered reversed.

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'Hot' Oregon Blueberry Fight Prompts Farm Bill Changes

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 07:15

A dispute between Beaver State blueberry farmers and workers spurred Congress to change an obscure provision in a 1938 labor law. Some fear it will delay pickers' paychecks.

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PODCAST: Fewest first quarter layoffs since 1995

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 06:43

American companies announced fewer layoffs January to March than in any first quarter since 1995. Might that be a hint of good things to come in the month's big employment report that's on the way? We consult Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.

Also, when it comes to measuring the health of a country's economy, using the nation's Gross Domestic Product is often the barometer of choice. But as more dollars change hands, why aren't the outcomes always better? There's a new listing of 132 countries that uses 54 different indicators that together measure how well a country is doing in giving its citizens good lives. It's called the Social Progress Index. Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, says that although GDP is important, it doesn't tell the whole story.

Thousands Of Artifacts Seized At 91-Year-Old Indiana Man's Home

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 06:20

The collection of items has "immeasurable" cultural value, the FBI says. Some artifacts are Native American; others are Russian and Chinese. It's unclear how many were collected legally.

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VIDEO: What if Wal-Mart paid its employees more?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 05:57

Food stamps turns 50 this year. Since the program was written in to law, it's become one of those government programs that gets a lot of attention from politicians on both the left and the right -- especially recently. 

The program has been growing furiously in the past 15 years. In fact, one in seven Americans is on food stamps today. That's more than twice what the rate was in 2000. Some of that can be explained by changing eligibility requirements and job-losses during the recession. But the fastest growing group of food stamp participants in the last few decades are people who have jobs and work full year-round.

In our series on The Secret Life of a Food Stamp, Marketplace Wealth & Poverty Desk reporter Krissy Clark reports on how big retail chains that employ these workers also themselves take in tens of billions of dollars in food stamps.

In this video, produced by our series partner Slate, we estimate how much more Wal-Mart might have to charge for some products, if it raised wages high enough that a typical worker earned too much to qualify for food stamps.

Note: Eligibility for food stamps varies according to income, number of dependents and other factors. This estimate of Walmart's potential cost from raising wages is based on wages for a Walmart employee with one dependent working 30 hours a week, a typical retail worker based on federal data.

VIDEO: What if Wal-Mart paid its employees more?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 05:57

Food stamps turns 50 this year. Since the program was written in to law, it's become one of those government programs that gets a lot of attention from politicians on both the left and the right -- especially recently. 

The program has been growing furiously in the past 15 years. In fact, one in seven Americans is on food stamps today. That's more than twice what the rate was in 2000. Some of that can be explained by changing eligibility requirements and job-losses during the recession. But the fastest growing group of food stamp participants in the last few decades are people who have jobs and work full year-round.

In our series on The Secret Life of a Food Stamp, Marketplace Wealth & Poverty Desk reporter Krissy Clark reports on how big retail chains that employ these workers also themselves take in tens of billions of dollars in food stamps.

In this video, produced by our series partner Slate, we estimate how much more Wal-Mart might have to charge for some products, if it raised wages high enough that a typical worker earned too much to qualify for food stamps.

Note: Eligibility for food stamps varies according to income, number of dependents and other factors. This estimate of Walmart's potential cost from raising wages is based on wages for a Walmart employee with one dependent working 30 hours a week, a typical retail worker based on federal data.

Jobless Claims Rose Last Week

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 04:44

The uptick to 326,000 applications still kept claims near the lower end of a range they've been in for the past year or so. On Friday, the government will report on the March unemployment rate.

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Nearly Half Of Californians Who Used Exchange May Drop Coverage

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 04:41

Over the next year, many of the more than 1.2 million people who used the Covered California exchange to buy health insurance are expected to switch to job-based plans or Medicaid.

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Early Evidence: Fort Hood Gunman Showed No Warning Signs

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 04:02

The soldier who has been identified as the man who killed three people and wounded 16 before apparently taking his own life Wednesday was an Army truck driver who was being treated for depression.

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'Empathy Exams' Is A Virtuosic Manifesto Of Human Pain

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 03:03

Leslie Jamison's new book of essays, The Empathy Exams, combines the intellectual and the emotional to explore the humanizing effect of empathy. Heller McAlpin calls it a "soaring performance."

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'We Do Not Expect Any More Fatalities,' Doctor Says Of Fort Hood Victims

NPR News - Thu, 2014-04-03 03:00

Also: Secretary of the Army says background checks on the soldier who killed at least three people and wounded 16 before taking his own life showed "no involvement with extremist organizations."

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Coinstar goes after the gift-card resale market

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 02:53

Coinstar is getting deeper into the gift-card market, expanding on its line of new machines that let consumers exchange their unused gift cards—loaded with value—for instant cash.

David Robertson of financial newsletter ‘The Nilson Report’ tells the story of a typical gift card: “Just like you’d get a gift in the old days from Aunt Myrtle of socks that you didn’t want, now you’re getting a prepaid card from Aunt Myrtle to a store you didn’t want to purchase from.”

Now, imagine Aunt Myrtle’s nephew, Spike. He just got a $100 gift card—for J.C. Penney, where he’s not going to shop. So he sells it at the Coinstar Exchange kiosk for the company’s offer of $70. Coinstar unloads it to a partner company—Blackhawk—that markets the card online at CardPool.com. Another consumer buys it for $90. A $20 profit is left over, to be split by Coinstar and Blackhawk.

 

Shea Huffman/Marketplace

 

Coinstar Exchange General Manager Jeff Dirks says the company (a subsidiary of Bellevue, Washington-based Outerwall) sees promise in this business, and is expanding its footprint in several Western States from 400 to approximately 650 in-store machines over the next few months to test the market further.

Dirks says a lot of gift cards are never used. Coinstar is giving card-holders a convenient way to sell unwanted cards, and likely get most of the value back. He says many spend the money in the store where the Coinstar Exchange kiosk is located.

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow at Golden Gate University thinks this could help consumers burdened by gift cards.

“If you’re trying to get rid of a gift card, everything in the store is an option, and consumers find that to be sort of a freak out,” says Yarrow. “They almost feel pressure to buy.”

Then, she says, they often spend even more than the gift card is worth—and more than they meant to spend—out of pocket.

Coinstar goes after the gift-card resale market

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 02:53

Coinstar is getting deeper into the gift-card market, expanding on its line of new machines that let consumers exchange their unused gift cards—loaded with value—for instant cash.

David Robertson of financial newsletter ‘The Nilson Report’ tells the story of a typical gift card: “Just like you’d get a gift in the old days from Aunt Myrtle of socks that you didn’t want, now you’re getting a prepaid card from Aunt Myrtle to a store you didn’t want to purchase from.”

Now, imagine Aunt Myrtle’s nephew, Spike. He just got a $100 gift card—for J.C. Penney, where he’s not going to shop. So he sells it at the Coinstar Exchange kiosk for the company’s offer of $70. Coinstar unloads it to a partner company—Blackhawk—that markets the card online at CardPool.com. Another consumer buys it for $90. A $20 profit is left over, to be split by Coinstar and Blackhawk.

 

Shea Huffman/Marketplace

 

Coinstar Exchange General Manager Jeff Dirks says the company (a subsidiary of Bellevue, Washington-based Outerwall) sees promise in this business, and is expanding its footprint in several Western States from 400 to approximately 650 in-store machines over the next few months to test the market further.

Dirks says a lot of gift cards are never used. Coinstar is giving card-holders a convenient way to sell unwanted cards, and likely get most of the value back. He says many spend the money in the store where the Coinstar Exchange kiosk is located.

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow at Golden Gate University thinks this could help consumers burdened by gift cards.

“If you’re trying to get rid of a gift card, everything in the store is an option, and consumers find that to be sort of a freak out,” says Yarrow. “They almost feel pressure to buy.”

Then, she says, they often spend even more than the gift card is worth—and more than they meant to spend—out of pocket.

Saving Medicaid money in Camden, N.J.

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 02:24

Around the country, hospitals and doctors are teaming up to better manage patients. They're trying to strip away wasteful practices like redundant testing. They’re doing so with what are known as accountable care organizations, or ACOs, and one in Camden, N.J., is drawing attention.

The name may be jargon, but Mark Humowiecki with the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers says the concept of an ACO is pretty basic: “Spend more money on primary care in order to keep people out of the hospitals.

Under the ACO model in Camden, insurers give the hospitals and doctors a chunk of money to care for the some 32,000 Medicaid patients in the city. The idea is to make it very easy to get primary care, and avoid unnecessary hospitalizations and ER visits.

If it works, the savings could be immense.

“We think we could save anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of spending,” says Humowiecki. “That’s millions of dollars a year.”

The challenge, says Brookings Institution’s Mark McClellan, is that Medicaid patients often struggle. 

“They may not have regular homes, they may have trouble getting their medications, they may have other stresses in their lives,” McClellan says. “And that is hard work to do.”

As one of about a dozen Medicaid ACOs, Camden is on the front line of the front lines of health reform, says McClellan.

And people are watching. If it works here, Camden becomes a national model.

Hungry for Savings

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 01:57

This story is part of collaboration with Slate called “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp.” 

Karrie Denniston is standing in the meat department of a Walmart Supercenter peering at the sell-by dates on a stack of pork chops. Denniston, director of hunger relief and nutrition programs at the Walmart Foundation, is at Walmart’s “Store 100,” the showcase Supercenter across the street from company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Store 100 is one of thousands of Walmart locations where the company collects billions of pounds of vegetables, dry goods, and other items for its food-donation program. Every day, as part of its anti-hunger initiative, Walmart associates scour the shelves looking for food that falls into a donation sweet spot: just past its sell-by date but still safe to eat. 

Karrie Denniston of the Walmart foundation.

Walmart—which in 2012 made a five-year pledge to donate $2 billion in cash and food to fight hunger—works with local food banks to distribute the meat, in a system of carefully temperature-controlled steps. Denniston holds up a family pack of pork chops. If no one buys it before its sell-by date, “that meat may end up as part of a stew at a local soup kitchen, or it may end up being distributed at a food pantry to a mom so that she can make tacos for her kids,” she says. 

Some of Walmart’s donations end up on the shelves of the Lutheran Social Services food pantry in Columbus, Ohio. “Walmart, Save-a-Lot, Giant Eagle, Kroger, they all send a lot of food back here,” volunteer Jordan Moore says. The donations are “a blessing,” he says. 

But there can be moments that throw him. Recently, a shopper at the food pantry took an item off a shelf and told Moore, “I put this on the shelf, too.” The shopper was a Walmart worker. 

“It’s this cycle that keeps going around and around,” says Jason Elchert, deputy director for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “We need to take a deep breath and think about how can we move our country forward.” Elchert says that over the past few years more and more working people in need of food assistance have been showing up at the charities his group serves. These include workers whose food stamps have run out before the end of the month as well as people who still can’t make ends meet even though they make too much to qualify for government food assistance.  (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps, has an annual gross income cap of just under $25,400 for a household of three.)

Like many anti-hunger advocates who receive donations from corporate retailers known for low wages, Elchert is in a tricky spot when it comes to addressing the paradoxes of the food stamp economy. His group gets financial support from Walmart and other food retailers. “When we’re talking a lot with corporations,” he says, “it’s one of those situations where, well, let's talk about this in some way where we’re not offending them.” 

Matt Habash, president of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank—which has representatives from retail companies including Kroger and Giant Eagle supermarkets on its board—has tried to broach the issue of low wages with his corporate supporters. At a recent board meeting, Habash brought up the idea of promoting a living wage as part of the food bank’s mission. “Some of the folks in that room were employers who knew their wages were not” living wages, Habash says. “They were willing to engage in the conversation,” he says. “But no one employer can do it on their own.” 

Wages might be a sensitive issue to tackle, but there is one cause many big retailers have already come together on: protecting funding for SNAP. The program, which gives low-income families an average of $130 a month in food assistance, is lucrative for stores; food stamps accounted for $76 billion in store revenue in 2013.

But spending on the program has become the subject of protracted debates in recent years as food stamp rolls have soared, largely in response to the poor economy. Congress voted earlier this year to cut $8 billion from SNAP over the next decade, after House Republicans gave up their fight for much larger cuts (that would have reached nearly $40 billion).

In the middle of the battles over food stamp funding, the Ohio Grocers Association sent Congress a joint letter with the state’s Association of Food Banks. They wrote, "Cutting SNAP doesn't just hurt the poor, it hurts business too."

Food banks receive a sizeable proportion of their donations from big stores like Walmart.

“You tend to think that larger retail chains, with their corporate culture and perspective, might be less inclined to support a large, federal program, but certainly on the other side, these programs benefit them tremendously,” says Julie Paradis, former administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service at the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program.

Toward the end of the SNAP funding debates in January, I met with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio (and the daughter of a grocer) who was working to persuade her Republican colleagues to minimize the food stamp cuts. “Walmart is a helpful force, as well as many other retail stores. All the big retailers, the grocers, make a great deal of money” from SNAP, she said. 

Walmart confirms it takes in about 18 percent of U.S. food stamp dollars, a share that would have amounted to more than $13 billion last year. Walmart spokesman David Tovar told me the company did not take a position on the recent food stamp funding cuts but that it likes to be “part of the dialogue” to help elected officials consider the issue of food stamp funding. “We oftentimes will provide useful information about our business, some of the trends we’re seeing, how it’s impacting customers,” Tovar says.

But public lobbying records suggest Walmart is playing a more active role in those discussions. Disclosure forms for the end of 2013, when debate over SNAP funding was in full swing, show that Walmart paid in-house lobbyists $1.9 million. The report itemizes lobbying activity on a broad range of issues, among them SNAP, the farm bill legislation that determines SNAP funding levels, and “discussions regarding Federal Nutrition programs from the consumer and retail perspective.”

Further down the lobbying form, Walmart also disclosed discussing the minimum wage. (Walmart says that it has not taken a stand on the proposed raise to the federal minimum wage to $10.10 but that it’s looking into the effect it would have on its business.)

If you go to Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, in a drab brick building that looks more like a public school than a corporate HQ, you will probably hear at least one person quote a certain Walmart aphorism: “EDLC equals EDLP.” Translation: “Every Day Low Costs” equal “Every Day Low Prices.” That’s part of why discount retailers like Walmart take in so many food stamp dollars in the first place, as low-income customers look to get the most bang for their food stamp bucks.

You can think about that equation two different ways. Walmart sees its low prices as a chief force in fighting hunger, says Denniston of the Walmart Foundation. “We want to take the best of what Walmart as a business has to offer and build on that,” she says, “and so one of the greatest assets that we provide to local communities is being a grocer that can bring safe, affordable, nutritious products.”

But one of the Every Day Low Costs that Walmart needs to keep in check is the price of labor. In the EDLC = EDLP equation, low wages help make low prices possible—and if that means some companies don’t pay their workers enough to make ends meet, it’s the government that makes up the difference. 

Additional reporting and production on this story from Jolie Myers and Martha Little.

Part Two: The Secret Life of a Food Stamp

New study looks beyond GDP to measure economic health

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 01:32

When it comes to measuring the health of a country's economy, using the nation's Gross Domestic Product is often the barometer of choice. But as more dollars change hands, why aren't the outcomes always better?

There's a new listing of 132 countries out today that uses 54 different indicators that together measure how well a country is doing in giving its citizens good lives. It's called the Social Progress Index. Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, says that although GDP is important, it doesn't tell the whole story. He joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the report. 

Is privacy a luxury good?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 00:44

How much does it cost to keep your information from prying eyes? Julia Angwin, ProPublica reporter and author of "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," shelled out nearly $2,500 to protect her data. From the encrypted cloud service to the burner laptop, she found that privacy really is a luxury good. 

"People who are like me, tech elites basically, are going to get these sophisticated tools to really carefully manage our data. But the group of people who aren't empowered, don't have time or money to have these tools are going to be on what I call a giant suckers' list," Angwin said. 

A wealth gap in the world of privacy could mean a very different online reality depending on your income.

According to Angwin, websites will soon dynamically create themselves based on your data, determining what product options are available to you. 

Is privacy a luxury good?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-04-03 00:44

How much does it cost to keep your information from prying eyes? Julia Angwin, ProPublica reporter and author of "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," shelled out nearly $2,500 to protect her data. From the encrypted cloud service to the burner laptop, she found that privacy really is a luxury good. 

"People who are like me, tech elites basically, are going to get these sophisticated tools to really carefully manage our data. But the group of people who aren't empowered, don't have time or money to have these tools are going to be on what I call a giant suckers' list," Angwin said. 

A wealth gap in the world of privacy could mean a very different online reality depending on your income.

According to Angwin, websites will soon dynamically create themselves based on your data, determining what product options are available to you. 

First Test For College Hopefuls? Decoding Financial Aid Letters

NPR News - Wed, 2014-04-02 23:38

You got in! But just how much money is that school offering you? Financial aid award letters can be confusing, so we've put together a sample letter — and translated it into plain English.

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