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Americans are paying more and getting less as inflation hits home

In happier times, Susan Morrison and her husband Calvin liked to vacation in their motor home. But they've had to park it this year because of the high cost of diesel fuel.
Susan Morrison
Susan Morrison
In happier times, Susan Morrison and her husband Calvin liked to vacation in their motor home. But they've had to park it this year because of the high cost of diesel fuel.

Updated September 16, 2022 at 8:29 AM ET

Susan Morrison knew something was wrong when she bought a new tub of cottage cheese.

"I had an old one in the refrigerator," Morrison recalls. "I went to put the new one in and it was like, 'Wait a minute. This is two-thirds of the size. There's a third missing.' "

Many people feel as though something is missing in the U.S. economy, finding they're paying more and getting less.

Despite a strong job market and near record-low unemployment, 37% of Americans say their personal finances have gotten worse in the last year, according to a new NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. That's an 8-point jump since February. Twice as many people now say their economic situation has worsened as say it has improved.

Most blame the worst inflation the United States has seen in four decades. Consumer prices across the board rose 8.3% in August from a year earlier, according to government data released this week. Price increases in some areas were even steeper.

Thanks inflation: almost everyone says they're cutting back and staying in

For Morrison, who lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif., the curdling of confidence goes beyond cottage cheese. She and her husband are both retired. They've watched a falling stock market erode their savings, while prices at the supermarket have jumped more than 13% in the last 12 months.

"We're seniors. It's not like we're eating huge meals," Morrison says. "But we have noticed that our grocery bill over just the last two years, we've watched it go up and up and up."

Nearly three out of four people surveyed say they've cut back on spending in the last six months in response to economic conditions. More than a quarter say they'd had to rely on savings in order to make ends meet.


Morrison used to volunteer weekly with at a senior center in Simi Valley, but now goes only every other week to save on gasoline. She and her husband have also cut back on travel.

"We love to vacation in our motor home," Morrison says. "But we have not gone anywhere in our motor home at all this year because of the cost of diesel."

Both diesel and gasoline prices have dropped sharply, since hitting record highs in June. But fuel remains significantly more expensive than it was a year ago. The average price of diesel is still nearly $5 a gallon.

As with many issues, people's attitudes about the economy are shaped in part by partisan politics. Republicans, like Morrison, are almost four times as likely as Democrats to say their financial situation has worsened in the last year, just as Democrats were more likely to grumble when President Trump was in office.

Even among Democrats, though, attitudes have deteriorated somewhat. Fifteen percent of Democrats now say their family finances have worsened in the last year — up from 12% who said so in February.

One of the biggest complaints is high inflation.

"I mean, when you try to buy a steak, for Chrissakes," says Craig Barnes, an energy broker in Plano, Texas. "It has a big impact, especially in my business. When I'm taking people out and stuff like that, we're not going to steakhouses any more. We're dialing it back big time."

More than half the people surveyed say they're eating out less now than they were six months ago. Four in 10 say they're driving less or carpooling in order to save on gas.

Some of the reported spending cuts may be exaggerated. According to the Commerce Department, for example, actual spending at restaurants is up nearly 7% over the last six months.

Lavender Justice, who works as a pizza delivery driver in suburban Atlanta, suffered a drop in income earlier this summer when gas prices soared. Although gas prices have since fallen, the delivery business hasn't fully recovered. Fewer people are ordering pizza some nights. And even when it's busy, tips are down.

"People are struggling. It's kind of tragic," Justice says. "Even on Fridays and Saturdays, I've been making only 75% of what I was a year ago."

When Lavender Justice is not delivering pizzas, they enjoy costumed camping trips and live action role play.  But a falling income has forced Justice to cut back this year.
/ Lavender Justice
Lavender Justice
When Lavender Justice is not delivering pizzas, they enjoy costumed camping trips and live action role play. But a falling income has forced Justice to cut back this year.

As a result, Justice has scaled back spending on favorite hobbies, such as costumed camping trips.

"A lot of my friends are either having to cut down on activities that they enjoy, " Justice says, or "pick up more hours, [or] figure out second jobs."

Skipping doctor visits and other signs of economic distress

Just over a third of those surveyed say they canceled or scaled back vacations over the last six months, while 18% say they skipped a doctor's visit or a purchase of prescription drugs. In general, families making less than $50,000 a year were more likely to say they'd cut spending than those with higher incomes.

Missing a rent or mortgage payment can be a sign of more serious economic distress. Less than 10% of those surveyed said they'd skipped or delayed such a payment in the last six months.

But missed housing payments were more than twice as common among families making less than $25,000 a year.

"I had to be late on rent this month, and probably going to have to figure something out for this coming payment as well," says Connor Slaten, who works at a KFC in Kansas City, Mo.

Slaten was recently promoted to shift manager, and his wages climbed to $14 an hour. Still, he says, that's not keeping pace with the rising cost of living.

"I don't think there's anywhere in America where $14 an hour can adequately pay for a one-bedroom apartment and everything else that you need," he says.

Some of those surveyed are pessimistic that economic fortunes will improve any time soon. Others have their sights set on a political change in Washington. And some are banking on growing sense of empowerment among workers.

"There's more people quitting jobs that aren't treating them well," says Justice, the pizza delivery driver. "That gives me a lot of hope. Because if enough people quit jobs that aren't treating them well, they'll have to start treating people better and have to start paying people what they're worth."

Justice hopes to start a new job — working with a wilderness therapy program — this fall.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.