Utility bills are piling up for millions of Americans, more than half say life is getting tougher and many economists agree that inflation — already running at near 40-year highs — has yet to peak, grim surveys show ahead of the midterm elections.
Americans have for months been focussed on the runaway inflation that sent gas prices above $6 per gallon and pushed pantry staples like eggs rocketing up by 40 percent in the year to August.
A glut of surveys released this week show how millions of families are now struggling financially, being unable to pay their rent, credit card and utility bills and increasingly gloomy about their future prospects.
They come just 34 days before the midterm elections, when voters will decide which party controls Congress for the rest of President Joe Biden’s current term in the White House — and the economy is front and center in their minds.
‘Millions of Americans have had to make sacrifices because of inflation to pay the bills,’ said Matt Schulz, a credit analyst at LendingTree, a loan marketplace, on the release of a survey on Wednesday.
Some 32 percent of adults have paid a bill late in the past six months, often because they simply do not have enough money in the bank. Utilities, credit cards, cable television, and internet were the most frequently missed payments
‘Perhaps the worst part is that inflation likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.’
The poll of 1,600 consumers found that 32 percent of adults — roughly 83 million people — had paid a bill late in the past six months, with 61 percent of them saying they just did not have the money to settle their dues.
Most of the time, the bills were for utilities, credit cards, cable television, internet, rent or mortgage payments, researchers found. More than half of Americans have dipped into their overdraft to pay bills, and a quarter have done this more than once.
U.S. consumer prices unexpectedly rose in August, the most recent month for which data are available, with an 8.3 percent increase against the previous year, and underlying inflation accelerated amid rising costs for rents, healthcare and food.
According to the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, the overall cost of food rose 11.4 percent, with the food-at-home category, groceries, up 13.5 percent — the steepest rises since the late 1970s.
Shoppers have noticed sharp increases in the cost of eggs, which jumped nearly 40 percent in the year to August — meaning the price of a dozen rose from $4.63 to as much as $7.69 in some stores.
Other pantry staples that have seen big price hikes include milk (which rose 17 percent in the year to August), oranges (14 percent), roasted coffee (18.7 percent), margarine (38.3 percent) and breakfast cereals (23.3 percent).
Against this backdrop, a survey of attitudes among economists released on Wednesday by Bankrate, a consumer finance company, offered few glimmers of hope — 43 percent said inflation would get worse than expected over the next 12-18 months.
Two thirds of those surveyed said the U.S. would slip into a recession in the same time frame, meaning two consecutive quarters of economic shrinkage, while 86 percent said the outlook was ‘tilted toward the downside’.
A shopper holds groceries while waiting to check out at a grocery store in San Francisco, California, as inflation forces millions of households to cut back on everyday basics
‘Inflation remains close to 40-year highs, is broad based, and is likely to remain stubbornly high,’ Mike Fratantoni, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said in a statement.
‘It will take time for some of the more persistent components to turn.’
As well as the difficulty of meeting weekly charges, Americans are increasingly despondent about their economic future, according to a survey by University of Chicago and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Most of those polled said they wanted to raise a family and own a home, but more than half said these goals are harder to achieve compared with their parents’ generation.
That was particularly true for younger people — about seven in 10 Americans under 30 said homeownership was becoming harder to achieve.
About half also said it’s hard for them to improve their own standards of living, due to economic and structural factors.
Jesus Montiel, Krista Mason and their daughter Diana, 2, spend time together at their home in Afton, Wyoming, where inflation has made it even harder for working parents to run a household
Josean Cano, 39, a bus operator in Chicago, said he’s had a harder time economically than his parents. He mentioned inflation, high housing costs, and the recent baby formula shortage as examples.
‘Things have doubled and tripled in price,’ Cano told AP.
‘We’re not talking about gym shoes or concert tickets. We’re talking about essentials. Six months ago, you couldn’t find PediaSure. And if you could find it, it would be $20. It used to be $11 at Target.’
As well as grocery costs taking a chunk out of his earnings, Cano noted that costs of rents and education had risen so much in recent years that workers on a basic wage were slowly getting squeezed.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C., the federal minimum wage in 2021 was worth 34 percent less than in 1968, when its purchasing power peaked.
‘Many people perceive their options are less than what they had in the past,’ said University of Chicago professor Steven Durlauf, who studies inequality and helped construct the study.
‘A lot of sense of well-being has to do with relative status, not absolute status.’
Polling from KFF, The Wall Street Journal, NBC News and others show that inflation and gas prices were important to voters in the upcoming midterms, which will determine which party controls Congress.
Gun violence, abortion access and prescription drug costs were also top concerns.
A third of adults have paid a bill late in the past six months, according to a survey. Utilities, credit cards, cable television, and internet were the most frequently missed payments