Susan Morrison/Susan Morrison
Susan Morrison knew something was wrong when she bought a new pack of cottage cheese.
“I had an old one in the fridge,” Morrison recalls. “I went to put the new one in and it was like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s two-thirds the size. There’s a third missing.’”
Many people feel that the US economy is missing something and are finding that they are paying more and getting less.
Despite a strong job market and near-record unemployment, 37% of Americans say their personal finances have worsened in the past year, according to a new NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. That’s an 8-point jump since February. Today, twice as many people say their economic situation has gotten worse than it has improved.
Most blame the worst inflation the United States has seen in four decades. According to government data released this week, consumer prices rose 8.3% yoy in August. In some cases, the price increases were even greater.
Thanks to inflation: almost everyone says they’re cutting back and staying in
For Morrison, who lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif., curdling confidence goes beyond cottage cheese. She and her husband are both retired. They’ve seen a falling stock market eat up their savings while supermarket prices have risen more than 13% over the past 12 months.
“We are seniors. It’s not like we’re eating huge meals,” says Morrison. “But we’ve found that our grocery bill has gone up and up over the past two years.”
Almost three in four respondents say they have cut spending in the past six months in response to the economic climate. More than a quarter said they depended on savings to make ends meet.
Morrison used to work weekly as a volunteer at a senior center in Simi Valley, but now he only goes every other week to conserve gas. She and her husband have also restricted travel.
“We love vacationing in our RV,” says Morrison. “But because of the cost of diesel, we didn’t drive our camper at all this year.”
Both diesel and petrol prices have fallen sharply since hitting record highs in June. But fuel remains significantly more expensive than it was a year ago. The average diesel price is still nearly $5 a gallon.
As with many issues, partisan politics shapes people’s attitudes towards the economy. Republicans like Morrison are nearly four times as likely as Democrats to say their financial situation has deteriorated over the past year, just as Democrats were more likely to grumble when President Trump was in office.
But attitudes have also deteriorated somewhat among Democrats. Fifteen percent of Democrats now say their family finances have deteriorated over the past year, up from 12 percent who said so in February.
One of the biggest complaints is high inflation.
“I mean, if you’re trying to buy a steak, for Christ’s sake,” says Craig Barnes, an energy broker in Plano, Texas. “It’s having a big impact, especially in my business. When I take people out and stuff like that, we don’t go to steakhouses anymore. We dial it back strongly.”
More than half of those surveyed say they eat out less today than they did six months ago. Four out of ten say they drive less or carpool to save on gas.
Some of the reported spending cuts may be excessive. For example, actual spending at restaurants has increased nearly 7% over the past six months, according to the Department of Commerce.
Lavender Justice, who works as a pizza delivery man in suburban Atlanta, suffered a drop in income earlier this summer as gas prices soared. Although gas prices have fallen since then, the supply business has not fully recovered. Some nights fewer people order pizza. And even when it’s busy, there are tips.
“People fight. It’s kind of tragic,” Justice says. “Even on Fridays and Saturdays I’m only making 75% of what I was a year ago.”
As a result, Justice has scaled back spending on favorite hobbies like costumed camping trips.
“Many of my friends have to either limit activities they enjoy,” says Justice, or “put in more hours [or] Find second jobs.”
Skipping doctor visits and other signs of economic hardship
Just over a third of respondents say they have canceled or reduced vacation time in the last six months, while 18% say they have skipped or taken a doctor’s visit a purchase of prescription drugs. In general, families with annual incomes of less than $50,000 reported cutting spending more than families with higher incomes.
Not making rent or mortgage payments can be a sign of more serious economic distress. Less than 10% of respondents said they had missed or delayed making such a payment in the past six months.
But missed housing payments were more than twice as common among families earning less than $25,000 a year.
“I’ve had to default on rent this month and I’ll probably have to figure out something for that coming payment as well,” says Connor Slaten, who works at a KFC in Kansas City, Mo.
Slaten was recently promoted to shift supervisor and his hourly wage has increased to $14. But that can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, he says.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere in America where $14 an hour can reasonably pay for a one-bedroom apartment and everything else you need,” he says.
Some of the respondents are pessimistic that the economic situation will improve in the foreseeable future. Others have their sights set on political change in Washington. And some are betting on a growing sense of empowerment among workers.
“There are more and more people quitting jobs that don’t treat them well,” says Justice, the pizza delivery man. “That gives me great hope. Because if enough people quit jobs that don’t treat them well, they have to start treating people better and start paying people what they’re worth.”
Justice is hoping to start a new job this fall – she’s working with a wilderness therapy program.