Burdened by the Weight of Inflation

By Jon Cohen and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nearly seven in 10 Americans are worried about maintaining their standard of living, as concern has spiked higher in just the past five months, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Soaring consumer prices are a major challenge, with many people struggling under the weight of the rising costs of fuel, food and health care.

The poll shows that the weak economy and rising prices are high among voters' concerns, and contribute to a souring national mood in this presidential election year. More than eight in 10 said the country has veered pretty seriously off-track, and a separate poll released yesterday by ABC showed economic anxiety at its highest level on record since 1981.

Overall, 68 percent of people surveyed in the new Post-ABC poll said they were concerned about their ability to keep up their lifestyles, a jump of 17 percentage points since December. The increase cuts across party and income lines, spreading rapidly among Republicans, people from rural areas and those from middle- and upper-income households.

Nearly six in 10 of those from households with annual incomes of $100,000 or higher said they were worried about hanging onto their living standards, up from a third in December. And 56 percent of Republicans in the new poll expressed concern, up from 32 percent.

In the new poll, 20 percent of those surveyed cited the higher gasoline prices as the single most important economic issue, and more, about a third, pointed more generally to rising prices as the primary cause of their apprehension.

Overall, two-thirds called rising gasoline prices a financial hardship, including a third who said higher pump prices have proved to be a severe burden. According to the Energy Department, the average cost of gas has spiked 11 cents in the past week alone; it has gone up 33 cents over the past month.

"The $3.65 gas is killing us. The $2.75 gas was killing us. And, quite frankly, I don't see how the government can stand by and be completely idle and ruin the economy," said Tom Odle, 64, a Kansan who receives Social Security disability payments and whose wife works at a graphics firm. "What this is doing to us is to completely strip away our disposable income. It just goes for gas."

U.S. gasoline consumption has continued to grow gradually over the past five years even as crude oil prices have quadrupled, but there are some signs in the poll that prices have finally hit a level that is altering driving habits. Of those who called gasoline prices a burden, two-thirds said they have cut back at least somewhat on the amount of driving they do.

But those who have not pared back their car use -- more than half of all respondents -- said that, on average, the price of gasoline would need to reach $5.65 a gallon before they significantly curtailed their driving.

That figure may have broad repercussions for oil markets and people designing climate-change policy, who hope that higher pump prices will change driving habits enough to slash the greenhouse gas emissions that come from fuel use.

In the poll, big oil companies take the brunt of the blame for high motor fuel prices. Three in 10 people said that the oil companies or greed are the main cause of the rising costs, two in 10 pointed to market forces (including supply and demand), one in 10 blamed President Bush and 9 percent pointed at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other foreign oil producers.

"There's no oil shortage in this country. There's no gasoline shortage, and there hasn't been for years," said Odle, who added that he believes multinational oil companies were manipulating the markets.

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