Higher gas prices hit rural Americans hard

Where fill-ups are crucial, families face tough trade-offs: No Christmas presents for the Murphy kids.

Cheryl Murphy used to drive her Dodge Caravan as often as necessary to see her doctor in Lincoln, 25 miles south of her home here in the sparsely populated "North Country."

But that was before gas prices spiked, making fuel costs feel like a second co-pay for this single mother of two. Now that gas takes a 20 percent bite out of her monthly $243 check from Social Security, doctor visits have become a luxury out of reach.

"I don't monitor my health condition as well as I should because I just can't afford to get there," Ms. Murphy says. Meanwhile, she's cut down to one meal per day and has warned her children to expect nothing under the Christmas tree this year.

Ms. Murphy's quiet struggle plays out far from the public eye. Yet her story is hardly unique in rural America, where wages languish 25 percent below those in urban areas and private transportation is more central to daily life. And with winter just around the corner, costly trade-offs are fast becoming a way of life in places where schools, jobs, and the nearest stores all require a lengthy trip behind the wheel.

A September report from the Consumer Federation of America paints a painful picture. Households earning less than $15,000 are spending 10.4 percent of their income on gasoline in 2005, up from 8.2 percent in 1999 and far above the 1.9 percent spent by households earning more than $80,000.

The fraction spent on gasoline in rural households is 50 percent larger than the one in urban households. So when gas prices rise, few are hit harder than the 7.5 million Americans living in rural poverty.

"The rising gas prices are going to cause people real economic hardship" in rural areas, says Timothy Slack, a Louisiana State University sociologist who has studied the rural poor. Many, however, are reluctant to seek help, he adds. "Especially in rural areas, independence and self- sufficiency are important values. Reaching out to government and saying, 'My family and I can't make it' - that's hard."

Pleas for assistance are nevertheless on the rise. Earlier this year, the Salvation Army in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, received so many requests for gasoline vouchers that it began limiting distribution to people with medical emergencies. Here in Littleton, Catholic Charities has received 20 requests for gasoline vouchers in the past month, up from an average of 10.

And as gas eats up dollars, some seem to be seeking relief elsewhere in their budget. The food pantry supply stock at Barneveld Lutheran Church in Barneveld, Wisc., used to last a month. Now, it's gone within a week.

As prices hover near $3 per gallon, the poor aren't the only ones seeking relief. At eRideShare.com, the number of car-pool seekers jumped from a record high of 34 in one day to more than 200 on multiple days in September. In rural West Virginia, participation in a carpooling program for state employees nearly doubled in September; 85 now take part.

Marie Butler of Parkersburg is one of them. She saves $175 per month on an 86-mile one-way trip each day to Charleston.

Those with little to spare are giving up whatever they can. After crunching the new gas numbers, Wendy Whiton of Bethlehem, N.H. told her 14-year-old daughter last month that she'd have to pay for her own clothes, as well as school supplies and recreational activities with friends.

She also pared back the grocery budget for the family of six from $200 per week to $125, which means lower-quality meats and lots of whatever is on sale.

"Fuel is a necessary expense, so it basically comes first," says Whiton, who augments her husband's $40,000 salary with her own disability check. "We put gas in the cars and whatever's left over goes to other bills."

Others are finding ways to drive less. Tammy Hastings of Littleton, for example, has cancelled this fall's two planned field trips for her seven home-schooled children. That move alone could save close to $100, since the family fills a Ford E-350 van, which gets just 10 miles to the gallon.

Her husband Kevin, meanwhile, is making fewer visits to life insurance clients scattered across the North Country. It's a calculated gamble that could hurt the bottom line on his commission-only job.

With cash tight, he barters as much as possible, such as the riding lawn mower he traded this summer for two cords of wood worth about $400.

"We basically just had children, and as we incurred expenses, we worked a little harder to make it all work. But it's becoming harder to make it all work," Kevin says. "This year [in winter], we'll be burning more wood. And this year, I expect we'll be wearing more sweaters."

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