Inflation Is Slowing Down. But Working-Class Life in the US Is Still Hard to Afford.

The inflation rate is cooling, providing a respite for workers. Yet there’s a reason why many are still unhappy with the economy: from health care to housing to childcare, life in the US is more unaffordable than ever.

A steelworker in Dayton, Ohio. (Megan Jelinger / AFP via Getty Images)

In the ongoing hand-wringing over why Americans are so unhappy about the economy, the cooling inflation rate has often been front and center. CNN recently pondered why the US public is still glum when there have been “months of increasingly positive economic indicators,” noting that the rise of the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index — the metric the Fed uses as the benchmark for measuring inflation — had slowed for the second month in a row.

It’s true the inflation rate these past few months has been lower than in April and earlier, and barely even approaches the near-double-digit year-over-year increases that we saw much of last year. This is good news, especially if it means we’re more likely to avoid a recession and that the end of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes are on the horizon.

But it would be wrong to treat this as a triumph that wipes all the lingering blemishes away or, worse, do as many commentators have been doing and cite it as one more reason unhappy Americans are a bunch of chumps deluded about the state of the economy. The inflation rate — that is, the pace at which prices are going up — might be slowing down, but that doesn’t mean prices are lower. In fact, they are much, much higher for all kinds of goods and services than they were three years ago. The sad reality is that for the vast majority of workers, even with unemployment low (which boosts labor’s power) and low-wage workers seeing a historic boost to their incomes, the United States today is a far more expensive place to live than it was before the pandemic.

Look at childcare, for instance. By July, the spike in childcare costs had far outpaced the general inflation rate, forcing parents to fork over thousands of dollars a month or to drop out of the workforce to take care of their kids. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s own Department of Labor called the price of childcare “untenable” based on data from 2018, ranging from $5,357 to $15,417 a year in 2022 dollars — or between 8 and 19.3 percent of median family income for every child. Footing the bill is about to get even harder, as the record level of pandemic-era federal funding that came out of the 2021 Biden stimulus is set to expire at the end of this month.

Prescription drugs — which 66 percent of all US adults use, often as a condition of staying alive and healthy — have likewise blown past overall inflation, with their whopping 31.6 percent year-to-year increase as of July 2022 (the most recent figure) representing more than three times the peak inflation rate last year. Americans are paying two and a half times more for such medicine than people in similarly wealthy countries, including neighboring Canada, with brand-name drugs nearly five times higher. An August survey found that 28 percent of adults report struggling to afford their prescriptions, including two-thirds of those making less than $40,000 a year; one-fifth didn’t fill a prescription because of the cost. That’s millions of people. While the Inflation Reduction Act’s provision empowering Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices is a landmark and long-overdue step, it only targets ten drugs and kicks in three years from now.

Housing is also wildly expensive in the United States, with house prices and rents both hovering around all-time peaks. Even though housing costs leveled off somewhat this year, median rent remains practically at the record high it hit last year, while owning a home has arguably never been more expensive (ironically made pricier by the Fed’s inflation-fighting rate hikes, which have pushed mortgage interest rates to their highest level in more than two decades). A record number of Americans (21.6 million) are now spending more than 30 percent of their pretax income on rent, eating into the wage gains routinely cited by those who argue the economy is working well. Economists recently determined that housing costs “at least fully offset” any wage gains that workers made by taking jobs in high-paying industries in big cities, which means low-wage workers — of which there are many in America’s only growing urban areas — are being shafted even worse.

Meanwhile, Americans are paying substantially more than last year on insurance premiums for their homes, their cars, and their health care. That last one is particularly important, since already in 2021, Americans were shelling out an average of $12,900 per person on health care, roughly double what people in other wealthy countries spend. The average premium jumped 4 percent this year to $560 a month on average, and this is poised to rise more, with insurers on the Affordable Care Act marketplace set to propose a median hike of another 6 percent next year. While the rise in health care costs this past year was, in a break from the historical trend, way surpassed by the rate of inflation, health care spending — which has shot up 114 percent since 2000, compared to 81 percent for all goods and services — is still a major financial burden for workers. A November 2022 Gallup poll, for instance, found a record share of Americans (38 percent) reporting they or a family member postponed treatment due to the cost — up twelve points from the year prior.

You can tell people all you want that the monthly numbers show inflation is cooling and that the economy is due for a “soft landing.” That doesn’t change the fact that most workers are struggling to keep their heads above rising costs for life’s essentials, made even harder by the ongoing rollback of the pandemic-era welfare state. For most people, “inflation” means they have less money in their bank accounts, and if they increasingly can’t afford the things they need, all the encouraging macroeconomic indicators in the world aren’t going to make them feel better about the economy.

In an election year, that’s not a good thing for the party in charge. Promising to do something about this — say, by running on the hugely popular parts of Biden’s agenda that died on the vine in 2021, or even on simply reviving expired pandemic protections — might give people a reason to vote for you. Hectoring people they’re wrong about their own finances probably won’t.