The continuing climb in national and local living costs has obscured some figures that begin to offer hope that prices in the Greater Washington area are beginning to stabilize.
As with all statistics, this trend may reverse itself. And it should be emphasized that short-term figures are no guarantee of a continuing slow-down in inflation here.
Nevertheless, the two-month cost of living figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Thursday for the Washington area hold out some hope. Here is what they showed:
The rate of sinflation here between January and March was 1.9 percent, lower than a 2.4 percent spurt in the previous two months. The recent increase also was lower than the 2.2 percent rise for all U.S. cities or the national average. It appears that prices rose faster here late in 1978 and in the early weeks of 1979, but now are not quite so volatile. Meanwhile, prices in other areas are catching up.
On an annual basis, for the 12 months ending in March, area prices overall increased 11.3 percent compared with a 10.2 percent average for all cities. But prices in the Detroit area rose 12.3 percent; in Cincinnati by 12.2 percent; in Denver-Boulder by 14.3 percent; in Portland. Ore., by 12.4 percent; in St. Louis by 13.3 percent; and in San Diego by a whopping 15.7 percent.
Stated another way, this is what has happened to Washington area and nationwide consumer prices since 1967, the base year for the current index: Goods and services that cost $100 a dozen years ago now cost $209.10 on average across the nation and $212.60 in metropolitan Washington-a difference of $3.50.
There was good news during the recent two months in housing costs-which account for by far the largest portion of a local household's spending (an average of 47 percent). Overall housing costs were up 1.1 percent compared with an increase of 6 percent in the previous two months. The recent rise reflected higher energy bills, since homeownership costs (purchase price, mortgage interest, insurance, taxes, repairs) actually declined 0.4 percent.
In the volatile food sector, price increases also moderated substantially. Prices had increased by 4.6 percent in the November-January period but the rise in February was 2.5 percent and, in March 1.1 percent. Prices have continued to rise-but the rate of increase is trending downward.
Even in the affluent Washington market, the recent inflation has had an impact on spending. People are buying less. Areawide retail sales last year rose only 8 percent compared with a 12.5 percent jump in 1977.
Moreover, for the first two months of 1979, all area sales-at food stores, gas stations, auto dealers, other retailers-are up just 7 percent to $1.8 billion. Area department store sales rose only 2 percent from the same period last year, to $176 million. Given the rate of price inflation, people obviously purchased less goods and are devoting more of their income to such staples as food, apparel and housing.
Despite heavy consumer installment debts built up last year, Washingtonians continue to save. According to the Metropolitan Washington Savings and Loan League, 20 D.C. and Maryland S&Ls took in $268 million of new savings in March compared with $210 million year ago. Withdrawals also rose to $262 million from $210 million but there is no massive outflow of money. Indeed, savings growth continues apace at suburban S&Ls and the relatively weaker showing by D.C. associations reflects primarily their location, since most area residents live in the suburbs and use nearby branches.
There was anothe message in this week's reports for price-conscious Washingtonians. Overall private transporation costs rose 1.9 percent in the recent two months and 10.7 percent on an annual basis, because of steep rises in gasoline prices as well as higher insurance rates, tire costs and taxicab fares.
But public transportation costs were up 1.4 percent for the two months and 4.5 percent on an annual basis.
Subway or bus anyone? CAPTION: Graph, Metro Area Food Prices, By Robin Jareaux-The Washington Post;