How rising inflation is forcing sharp choices on low-income Americans: NPR


A shopper walks through a grocery store in Washington, DC on March 13th. Rising inflation poses a particular challenge for working-class families, affecting the price of basic necessities such as groceries.

Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images


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A shopper walks through a grocery store in Washington, DC on March 13th. Rising inflation poses a particular challenge for working-class families, affecting the price of basic necessities such as groceries.

Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images

From rising rents to higher heating bills, rising inflation is affecting everyone, but it poses a particular difficulty for people with little extra money left over.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Labor is expected to report that consumer prices in March rose more than 8% from a year ago, an even sharper jump than the 7.9% seen in the previous month. It would leave inflation at its highest level since 1982.

While no one likes to pay more for haircuts or burgers, high inflation is especially painful for low-income families whose expenses are heavily weighted toward necessities like groceries and gasoline, which have experienced some of the biggest price increases.

These families have a little fat in their household budgets to begin with, so when inflation cuts down on their limited purchasing power, there is something to give.

Take Laura Kemp, a widow in Muldrow, Okla., Who says her heating bill last month was $ 306, more than double the $ 125 she paid a year ago.

“I live in a two-bedroom mobile home,” she says. “I do not understand what is going on. Every month it rises and it fills about a third of my income.”

Kemp feels she’s losing ground, priced by even small indulgences like a McDonald’s meal.

“On the 10th of the month, I have $ 200 left,” she says. “The $ 200 a month now goes into my gas tank.”

“I no longer reach the end of the month,” she adds. “Even getting a Big Mac now – a Big Mac meal costs $ 8 – I can’t afford it.”

When the weather gets hot, Kemp plans to plant a kitchen garden in hopes of covering his food bill. She has selected seeds for tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and aubergines, and she is looking at some of the land her brother owns – where her mobile home is also located.


Community volunteers cut and prepare fruit at Houston Food Bank on Feb. 8.

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Community volunteers cut and prepare fruit at Houston Food Bank on Feb. 8.

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From groceries to rent, prices are rising everywhere

Charlene Rye, who retired after 28 years in the poultry industry – much of that time in chicken processing plants – has to make difficult choices after chicken prices rose sharply over the past year, just like everything else in the grocery store.

“You have to be a little more careful about what you do and things you do and things you buy,” she says.

Rye has been helped by a pantry in Sallisaw, Okla., Which has become busier as prices have risen.

“They open at 10 o’clock, and if you are there at 9 o’clock, there are already people in line,” she says.

For Terrie Dean, it’s the housing costs that really sting. She and her teenage son are temporarily staying at a motel in Sallisaw. She is dependent on disability payments of about $ 1,600 a month, which so far puts an apartment out of reach.

“They want the first month and the security deposit, without realizing that that may be all this family brings in,” Dean said.

Low-income families typically spend about 45% of their income on housing, compared to 18% for high-income families.


Gasoline prices fluctuate around $ 4 per tonne. gallon for the cheapest quality at several gas stations in Washington, DC on April 11th.

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Gasoline prices fluctuate around $ 4 per tonne. gallon for the cheapest quality at several gas stations in Washington, DC on April 11th.

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Gas prices tend to hit particularly hard

The difference between food and transport is even greater – consuming 9% of high-income households’ budgets, but 26% for low-income households.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, gasoline prices jumped to $ 4.33 per liter. gallon in March – a record high level not adjusted for inflation.

The increased gas prices may affect family ties. Sky-high energy prices forced Patricia Bridgmon of Chicago to cut down on visits to her elderly mother in Hammond, Ind., About 25 minutes away.

“It’s just awful with the gas,” she says. “I usually visit her three days a week. Now it’s down to one, because of the gas.”

Kemp, the widow with the increased heat bill, has also cut back on driving to Fort Smith, Ark., About 35 minutes from her home in eastern Oklahoma.

“I love going to art museums and shopping at thrift stores and just getting out,” she said. “But I can not even go any further.”

Meanwhile, Rye, the retired poultry worker, has to weigh the cost of driving to a larger supermarket, which is further away, against shopping closer to home, where prices are higher, even in good times.


Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard at his nomination hearing in Washington, DC, on January 13, after being nominated by President Biden to serve as central bank vice president.

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Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard at his nomination hearing in Washington, DC, on January 13, after being nominated by President Biden to serve as central bank vice president.

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The Federal Reserve plans to move aggressively to fight inflation

Federal Reserve officials are well aware of the toll that inflation is taking, especially on lower-income families, a point that Fed Governor Lael Brainard highlighted in a speech last week.

“While all Americans face higher prices, the burden is particularly heavy on households with more limited resources,” Brainard said. “Therefore, our most important task is to bring inflation down while maintaining a recovery that includes everyone.”

The Fed began raising interest rates last month in an effort to curb consumer demand and bring prices under control.

The central bank started slowly, raising interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point. But markets expect the Fed to become more aggressive, with a half-point increase now widely expected at the next Fed meeting in early May.

Although forecasters say March may reach the high tide mark of inflation, consumer prices are likely to continue to rise at an uncomfortably fast pace for the rest of this year, continuing to put particular pressure on the families who can afford the least.

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