Why inflation hurts more than it did 30 years ago
Friday, March 18, 2011; 11:33 AM
WASHINGTON -- Inflation spooked the nation in the early 1980s. It surged and kept rising until it topped 13 percent.
These days, inflation is much lower. Yet to many Americans, it feels worse now. And for a good reason: Their income has been even flatter than inflation.
Back in the '80's, the money people made typically more than made up for high inflation. In 1981, banks would pay nearly 16 percent on a six-month CD. And workers typically got pay raises to match their higher living costs.
Over the 12 months that ended in February, consumer prices increased just 2.1 percent. Yet wages for many people have risen even less - if they're not actually frozen.
Social Security recipients have gone two straight years with no increase in benefits. Money market rates? You need a magnifying glass to find them.
That's why even moderate inflation hurts more now. And it's why if food and gas prices lift inflation even slightly above current rates, consumer spending could weaken and slow the economy.
"It feels far more painful now than in the '80s," says Judy Bates, who lives near Birmingham, Ala. "Money in the bank was growing like crazy because interest rates were high. My husband had a union job at a steel company and was getting cost-of-living raises and working overtime galore."
Bates, 58, makes her living writing and speaking about how people can stretch their dollars. Her husband, 61, is retired. They've paid off their mortgage and have no car payments. But they're facing higher prices for food, gas, utilities, insurance and health care, while fetching measly returns on their savings.
"You want to weep," Bates says.
Consumer inflation did pick up in February, rising 0.5 percent, because of costlier food and gas. Still, looked at over the past 12 months, price increases have remained low. Problem is, these days any inflation tends to hurt.
Not that everyone has been squeezed the same. It depends on personal circumstances. Some families with low expenses or generous pay increases have been little affected.