As gas pumps fuel outrage, poor feel bite

Prices hit hardest in rural areas with long commutes.

Standing at an Amoco station in suburban St. Louis, Tara Holt turns her back on her son to watch the pump. The numbers on the display speed by before stopping at $18.98.

"I used to be able to put a couple of dollars in the car and get around," she says. "Now it takes $20 to fill up." As an unemployed single mother, high gas prices have hit her pocketbook hard.

It's the same story at Circle of Concern, a community charity a few miles away. "I used to go visit my sister twice a week," says Arlene Jeorling, picking out food and toiletries from the charity's food bank for a family member. Now she's had to cut back her driving to save gas.

While all of America complains about the rise in gasoline prices, the effect on the nation's poor goes beyond nozzle shock. Every extra dollar they spend on gasoline typically means a dollar cut from somewhere else. And as more of the nation's poor move off welfare rolls and into the workplace, they are more than ever dependent on transportation.

"There's a differential impact" to the gas-price hikes, says Henry McCarl, professor of economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "It's going to impact more severely on lower incomes that rely on private vehicles for transportation."

Consider Mary Lynn Shendal, a suburban St. Louis store clerk. Her gasoline costs have jumped from $80 to $160 a month - nearly one-fifth of her income. But it's hard to cut back the driving. She needs her van to go to work. "It's breaking me," she says.

The gas-price burden falls unequally. In 1998, the top-earning one-fifth of American families spent 1.6 percent of their income on gasoline and oil; the bottom fifth spent 7.1 percent.

Among low-income families, arguably the heaviest burden falls on rural residents.

"I've seen gas prices pretty much immobilize people," says Sara Williams, executive director of the Mississippi Equity Coalition, an umbrella group of Mississippi grass-roots organizations focused on low-income issues. With a paucity of jobs in the Mississippi Delta, many poor people drive 100 miles a day for viable work. When gas prices jumped from $1.09 to about $1.59 a gallon, those workers quickly felt the effects.

Last year, Circle of Concern handed out gift certificates for gasoline to two or three families a month. Now, it's helping as many as 12 to 15 families.

"And I expect it's going to get a lot worse," says Glenn Koenen, executive director of Circle of Concern. "Out here in West County," with public transportation scarce, he says, "it's 'no phone, no car - no job.' "

The high gas prices are also pinching organizations that help the poor.

"It's a major increase," says Deborah Leff, who heads America's Second Harvest.

As the nation's largest domestic-hunger relief organization, the Chicago-based group spent $1.1 million in its just-concluded fiscal year to pick up and distribute more than 1 billion pounds of food. But the unexpected price spike has upped costs at least an extra $100,000.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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