Surely you saw the news yesterday: one measure of inflation, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 1.1 percent in June – twice the rate of May for a total of 5 percent over the past 12 months and the largest year-to-year jump since 1991.
Meanwhile, consumer spending has stagnated and no wonder. Food prices, according to the federal government, rose .8 percent in June (up 6.1 percent in 12 months) with a 2.8 percent increase for fruits and vegetables and a 1.6 percent rise for dairy. Gasoline passed the $4 mark a few weeks ago, with a gallon of regular going for more than $5 in rural areas where it costs more to truck it to the local pumps.
In my neck of the woods, Portland, Maine, a pint of local strawberries at the farmers market is going for $6 this year compared with $4 last year (33 percent). I just signed the contract locking in the price for my winter-season heating fuel: up more than 45 percent in one year - and that’s with the .02 cents-per-gallon elder discount, which will save me all of $15 over the next 12 months.
I'm sure you have your own stories of giant leaps in prices of essentials. National CPI averages don’t come close to telling the economic story for those of us in the real world despite McCain campaign economic adviser and former senator, Phil Gramm, says about us being a nation of whiners.
Elders are being hit hard. Throughout the country, Meals on Wheels programs are cutting back deliveries to once a week, frozen meals instead of hot, and the number of visits from home health care aides is being cut too.
“…Bill Harman, 77, relies on a home aide to take care of his wife, Evelyn, who is 85 and has Alzheimer’s disease. Mr. Harman has had to use a wheelchair since 2000 because of hip problems…”
For her work with the Harmans, health aide Katie Clark earns $9 an hour and is not reimbursed for the gas she uses to drive the 700 miles over a week to visit them twice a day. Now, with the surge in gas prices, Ms. Clark doesn’t know how much longer she can afford the travel.
“If she leaves, Mr. Harman said, he could not care for his wife…Without an aide, he said, he would have to put his wife in a nursing home, and probably need to live in one himself.”
- The New York Times, 5 July 2008
Even elders who do not need home care, who are independent, are cutting back on visits to friends and family, community events and senior centers.
“[Betty Lish, 62,] has turned off her phone service and internet connection. She doesn’t use her air conditioning and keeps all appliances unplugged whenever possible. She relies on food stamps for groceries.
“’I can’t cut back any more,' she said.
“After paying rent and utility bills, the amount she receives in Social Security payments leaves about $20 a month for gas…
“So Lish cannot afford gas to visit her children, several living about two hours away. She no longer communicates through email with a son living in Japan.”
- Tulsa World, 12 July 2008
“Most senior citizens are on a fixed income and can barely afford to put gas in their car. And no gas means many of them are shut in.
“Some are complaining they can’t visit their friends and their friends can’t visit them so they sit at home alone.
“For many seniors, their set budget doesn’t include enough money for soaring electricity bills, gasoline that’s nearly $4 a gallon and paying double for the same bag of groceries they used to buy.”
- myfoxhouston.com, 2 July 2008
The July/August AARP Bulletin published a poll showing some of the ways elders are coping with rising food prices:
Using coupons at grocery stores: 57%
Buying generic brands of groceries: 56%
Starting a vegetable garden: 27%
Shopping less frequently: 47%
Eating more leftovers: 56%
Eating fewer meals: 18%
Eating out less: 54%
It’s that “eating fewer meals” that is alarming. And, undoubtedly, some elders are not filling prescriptions or taking smaller dosages of medications to stretch the time between refills.
The real-world price increase examples at the top of this story are likely closer to the truth of current inflation than the government's official CPI numbers. In a story yesterday at Huffington Post, Kevin Phillips quotes Charles S. Schwab & Company chief economist Liz Ann Sonders:
“‘Over the past 30 years, major changes have been made to the calculation of the CPI…
“If you eliminate those adjustments and calculate CPI as it would have been calculated in 1980, it would be nearly 12 percent today...No wonder clients constantly tell me they distrust government inflation data."
“Maybe our presidential candidates should take a break from discussing how many troops to move from Iraq to Afghanistan or vice versa and start publicly discussing the extent to which a fundamental mismanagement of the U.S. economy rests on a framework of what can bluntly be described as lies, damn lies and statistics.”
No kidding. And we shouldn’t have to wait for an election; Congress could be working on this. For elders, the issue of miscalculation of inflation statistics is a serious matter. The annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is based on the CPI.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, liloldme tells of a surprise encounter from Long, Long Ago and Far Away.]