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If inflation is up 3.9 percent, why does it feel worse?

One reason: Wages aren't keeping up with price rises.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2008

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF


Between the gas pump and the grocery checkout, Americans have plenty of reasons to list inflation as Economic Enemy No. 1. But how bad is it, really?

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The short answer: bad enough, but don't judge the problem only by what it costs to fill a fuel tank.

It's not surprising that many people feel as if inflation is running hotter than the government's consumer price index (CPI) suggests: just under 4 percent over the past year. Many Americans are paying more, especially if they commute long distances or are putting two kids through college. A perception factor is also at work.

The prices now rising fastest are the ones people see the most. Gas prices hit a record $3.76 a gallon Wednesday, according to AAA, up 39 cents in the past month. Food prices in April notched the biggest monthly jump since 1990. So while the prices of some important items bought less frequently – cellphone service, clothing, a house – have fallen or stayed flat, the view at the checkout counter is grim.

Another cause for worry: Wages are not keeping up with inflation.

"It's all bad," says Paul Trapani, referring to his living expenses. The Boston resident says all his costs seem to be rising by at least 5 percent, while pay raises don't match the increase.

"You actually get a pay cut," thanks to the inflation, Mr. Trapani says. "We just had Chinese food. I took out half the rice so I can put it into my gas tank."

Jokes aside, he has hit on a central problem for households across the nation. It's not that the government's inflation rate is understating the problem, many economists say. It's that inflation was higher in 2007 than in any year since 1990, and wages didn't keep up.

That may explain why 47 percent of adults in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll cited inflation as the biggest economic concern. None of the other concerns, from mortgages to unemployment, scored even half that high.

CPI reliable – but it's an average

"The CPI is a fine, reliable price index as far as it goes," says Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Yet "it absolutely doesn't reflect the true set of costs that everybody faces."

A person who operates his own trucking business, for example, devotes an outsized slice of income to fuel.

"Truckers are experiencing unprecedented operating cost increases," Todd Spencer, head of a group representing those truckers, told a May 6 hearing in Congress. "[They] are being forced to make tough decisions in the name of saving their businesses and providing for their families."

For other Americans, like Leah Yaroslaski, who works as a food-industry training consultant in Stockton, Calif., the CPI is that far from reality. But she figures that higher energy costs are making it harder for employers to raise salaries.

"If [inflation] goes up any more, we're in trouble," she says.