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How record inflation is affecting different people

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you shop, eat or are trying to rent or buy housing, you already know this. For months now, Americans have shouldered rising prices for basic necessities. That's the impact of inflation, which soared to a 40-year high in June. With all of those costs going up, we thought we'd drill down on exactly what this looks and feels like for different people. And we also thought we'd ask if there's anything that can be done to alleviate these burdens. For this, we called Amy Corron, who leads the Wesley Community Center in Houston, Texas. The center hosts a food pantry and provides other social services. Amy, welcome. Thanks for coming.

AMY CORRON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Somone Wilder is also with us. She's a realtor in Phoenix, Ariz. Somone, thank you so much for joining us as well.

SOMONE WILDER: So glad to be here.

MARTIN: And Kathryn Edwards is an economist at RAND who studies labor markets, public policy and inequality. Kathryn, thank you so much for joining us as well.

KATHRYN EDWARDS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Amy, I'm going to start with you. I just wanted to ask what you've been seeing, particularly at the food pantry this summer. Are you seeing more people coming through? And just tell us a little bit about what you're seeing.

CORRON: Sure. We run a food pantry in Houston in the middle of the city. As of late last year, we see about 450 to 500 households a week in our food pantry, and we've ballooned up to about 650 to 700 per week - so about a 50% increase. We hear from our clients every day. People are saying it's getting really bad out there. They're especially having trouble affording protein foods - eggs, milk, meat, things like that. They're asking for help with things they used to be able to afford, like diapers and personal hygiene items. They're needing help to pay for gas, even to get to Wesley to get help.

MARTIN: Somone, what about you? We're reading that the number of cancellations, people who've gotten fairly along in the process of buying a house and then backed out - we're reading that cancellations are on the rise. That's according to a new report from the real estate brokerage firm Redfin. Tell us what you're seeing.

WILDER: Absolutely seeing that. And, really, what buyers are saying - I represent quite a few buyers - everything is just so much more expensive for them in their everyday life. So just what we heard, gas and food, but not only that, interest rates for mortgages. When people are seeing just the cost of even borrowing money plus their everyday lives going up and up, it's just making them have cold feet when it comes to carrying forward a real estate contract. I will say, though, that there are some instances where people are getting cold feet at the very last minute as they're seeing reports of the prices of homes starting to come down a bit. They are just saying, you know what? Never mind. I don't want to move forward with this because I'm not sure what this home is going to be worth next year.

MARTIN: So, of course, Kathryn, as you know, that all these questions are both substantive policy questions; they're also political questions. And you see that Democrats are now the - are the party that hold the White House. President Biden on numerous occasions has called this Putin's inflation or Russia's inflation or the inflation resulting from the Russian war. As you see, the, you know, conservative media is calling this Biden's inflation. And so are there things that this administration could be doing to alleviate these burdens?

EDWARDS: So I will say that inflation causes can be very speculative. And so there's room for everyone to claim some territory. Policies that I haven't heard mentioned that I wish we were talking about on a national level would be things like asking employers to let all their workers work from home to ease the gas burden both in their lives and in general in the country, right? The largest decrease in gas demand we've ever had was in April of 2020, right? We know we can get the number down if everybody stays home. That's not feasible all the time. But there's a lot of people who could stay at home, you know, if their company said, we think this is a good thing to do.

You can imagine the federal government picking up the tab for public transportation and saying, look; just if you can get people on buses or into trains, you know, we can bring down the price of gas. Gas is often considered the linchpin of inflation because it is both something that we consume and something that we use to produce other things that we consume, right? It's an input in production in a factory, and it's also how, you know, something from a factory gets to your store.

MARTIN: Wow. That's interesting. So, Amy, let's pick up the ball again here. One of the reasons we're excited to talk to you and Somone also is that you're seeing things, like, in real time. What are some of the things that you think would help your clients that perhaps isn't as big of a part of the conversation as it should be?

CORRON: Sure. I think, you know, more help coming down with rental assistance from the federal government would be wonderful for our clients. We had some of that during the early months of the pandemic, and it was really helpful. And there's low unemployment in Houston, but there's a lot of churn, too. COVID is still an impact in Houston, and when people get sick, they often are required to test and required to stay home if they test positive for COVID. And so you can lose a job on the low end of the job spectrum if you stay home too long. And that's happening to a lot of our clients. So really a bigger push for vaccination as well and to get COVID under control.

MARTIN: So, Kathryn, before we let you go, can I have a final thought from you? I mean, of just hearing everything that you've heard, and, obviously, you see a lot of this in the data, what are your thoughts about how long this goes on? And are there things that you think that policymakers could be doing to alleviate some of this?

EDWARDS: One of the most difficult aspects of inflation and inflation policy is that it involves a pretty cruel calculus, which is that we need to reduce demand in order to bring prices down. But the - you know, the way that that is done isn't necessarily discriminant over the type of demand. I mean, how do you tell people walking into a food bank that they need to demand less food?

All the things that we've been talking about, you know, in this conversation were things that in surveys were reported by households that that's what they spent the expanded child tax credit on. For six months, we sent money to people who had kids who didn't get it before, and they very routinely said in surveys they're spending it on food, utilities, rent, child care and their kids. This was a policy lever that was going to, like, the affected population that was then cut off right as it got bad. You know, and if we are going to have a recession, if we are going to increase the number of unemployed people, if you think wages haven't gone up, I promise you your unemployment benefits haven't gone up, either.

MARTIN: That's Kathryn Edwards. She's an economist with RAND We also heard from Amy Corron, who's with the Wesley Community Center in Houston, Texas, which hosts a food pantry and provides other services. And Somone Wilder is a realtor in Phoenix, Ariz. Thank you all so much for sharing these insights with us today.

CORRON: Thank you.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

WILDER: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.