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Paying the price
It’s expensive to be poor
Hi, Ari here, writing you to cap a busy week—and turning to something that should be really important, with a dash of Bob Marley. My new piece is below, and you can always subscribe to my newsletter here:
Do you ever get exhausted by it all?
America went from Trump’s election to a pandemic to an inflation panic to this war.
The war in Ukraine poses an uncertain, unknowable set of challenges to people directly impacted in the region, and many (lesser but important) impacts on people who are farther away.
While we keep covering all of it, today I want to focus on a challenge for lower income Americans: The mounting cost of just getting by.
“Cost of living, gets so high…”
It’s getting extremely expensive for people to live—to buy gas, food and daily necessities. This is a rolling crisis for millions of Americans.
International instability and sanctions are increasing gas prices. Inflation continues at a 40-year high, and it impacts people very differently. Very wealthy people are literally barely impacted (as a percent hit to their costs and wealth). People with lower incomes can see their entire budget go underwater from these price surges.
The median American makes about $44,000 a year. That’s under $850 a week, before taxes.
And many people making those salaries are coming off job and income disruptions from the pandemic, when we saw a surge in demand at food banks.
Now being low income, or poor, is getting even more expensive. There’s nothing new about any of this; 50 years ago, Bob Marley tackled the link between inflation, hunger, inequality and activism in his civil rights anthem, Them Belly Full (But We Hungry):
Cost of living gets so high
rich and the poor / they start to cry
them belly full / but we hungry
a hungry mob is an angry mob
So while inflation and international oil markets may be complex, hunger and inequality are quite clear. Marley invoked the cost of living because it is a problem that is both driven by and reinforces inequality. Highly unequal societies function poorly, with the poor and powerless facing the costs first—but the problems eventually impact everyone.
So while there’s understandable focus on foreign policy abroad, and “big picture” governing challenges, the spiking cost of living is one of the most pressing problems in the nation. Even for slightly more successful workers, it is wiping out most or all salary increases (as we recently reported on MSNBC).
Recognizing and refocusing on this as an urgent national priority is one step towards addressing it. Then there’s the challenge of adapting current policies to the current challenge, from combating inflation itself (technically a task for the Federal Reserve), to blunting the impact of these price surges with direct aid.
For example, Congress did pass funding that cut child poverty in Biden’s first spending package. Should that second spending plan—currently stalled—be rebooted as an emergency plan to blunt rising prices? Should some regressive taxes be paused while inflation surges? Should domestic governing be directed at protecting people who work, pay taxes, “play by the rules” but are now facing down debt, or bankruptcy, largely because of these macro-economic factors beyond their control?… Should lawyers ask fewer rhetorical questions? (Just making sure you’re still reading closely!) You get the idea.
The mood is dour because things are bad
Finally, beyond policy, this economic struggle is most Americans’ main reality.
It’s hard to get a happy reaction from someone, or their best thoughts, if they’re famished (as mentioned above). For politics, it’s hard to get much optimism from Americans while things are this bad. That may speak to current polling and approval ratings for incumbents more than many of the reasons offered by pundits.
Do you think politicians are focused enough on this daily challenge for so many Americans?