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Pinching pennies - The Sun Chronicle : Local News

Pinching pennies

Food, fuel prices squeezing consumers, slowing recovery

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Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2011 12:00 am

Food and commodity prices that had been relatively stable over the past few years are creeping up again - and consumers are angry.

"It's like back to the '80s," said Stephanie Rose of North Attleboro, who remembers scrambling from store to store, coupons in hand, the last time inflation was a major buzzword at the supermarket.

"It stinks," she said.

Now, Rose is watching sales and clipping coupons to offset prices in meats, vegetables and other staples, but is still feeling the pinch.

"Where I used to spend $50, now I spend $80," she said. "So I end up going to more stores and work harder than I'd like to."

Rose isn't alone.

With a noticeable bump in food and energy prices this winter, more and more consumers are grousing about the cost of meat by the pound and gas at the pump.

According to the latest Labor Department figures, grocery prices shot up 3.9 percent last month, the most since November 1974.

Fuel and energy costs, meanwhile, rose more than 5 percent, even though the overall inflation rate remained low.

Wrapping up a recent shopping trip, North Attleboro resident Debbie Gildea said she's noticed significant increases in a lot of foods.

This past week, she said, the ice cream she likes to buy went up almost a dollar. Not surprising: According to the Agriculture Department, a half-gallon of pre-packaged ice cream rose to $4.99 last month, compared with $4.38 a year ago.

"Fruits and vegetables have gone up a lot," Gildea said. "It's not just the item, but the cost of delivering it. So you pay more at the grocery market."

Bruce Belling of Westport says he doesn't know much about the produce department, but he knows what he pays for gasoline and heating fuel.

He and his wife use propane for heat and hot water at home, and he said that fuel has increased in price at least 20 percent in the past year.

"It's just the two of us, but with everything going up, it's not easy," he said.

In Massachusetts, the price of gasoline averaged $3.48 a gallon this week, up 78 cents from a year ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And the cost of home heating oil averaged $3.90 a gallon last week, up from $2.86 at the same time last year, the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs reported.

From gas pump to the deli, inflation is once again a part of the consumer lexicon. And price increases for everything from tires to tomatoes could figure in the 2012 presidential election campaign as Republicans zero in on the economy as a priority target in their attempt to defeat President Barack Obama.

The Producer Price Index, which tracks price changes before they reach the consumer, rose 1.6 percent in February, the Labor Department reported last week. That's double the rise from the previous month and the biggest increase since June 2009.

And food prices could be 5 percent higher in the coming fall, compared with the same period last year, according to RBC Capital Markets.

While rank-and-file consumers are complaining, the effect of higher food and energy costs is worse for the region's poor, who spend a greater percentage of their income than most on necessities.

A harsh winter has heavily taxed emergency heating funds, said the St. Vincent de Paul Society's Irene Frechette.

And increasing food costs are forcing more unemployed and low-income families to seek assistance from food pantries and free meal programs.

Attendence at the Attleboro Council of Churches' Food n' Friends Kitchens, which provide about 500 free meals a week, is up, said the council's Sue Smith.

Those seeking help include both families and seniors who Smith said are particularly hard pressed.

"Many times I see seniors, and I get the impression it's robbing Peter to pay Paul for them," she said. "They can't afford both food and medicine, so they're buying their medicine and coming to the kitchens for meals."

The seeming revival of inflation in energy and groceries is fueling a debate among economists and other policy experts as to whether the latest upturn is just the tip of the iceberg.

Backers of the president say the core rate of inflation is still low and that there's no indication the country is on the verge of a broad-based revival of inflation approaching the scale of the 1970s and early '80s.

Critics say that with big federal deficits and the Federal Reserve pumping more money into the economy, it's a matter of time before Americans see even higher prices for almost everything.

For most of the past century, inflation has remained relatively stable, but has oscillated up and down during wars, recessions and during the 1970s, when a dramatic increase in oil prices corresponded with a rise in other commodities.

During times of economic panic, such as the Great Depression, prices actually declined.

Prices also tend to be influenced by other economic factors, such as governments increasing the money supply and spending on projects to stimulate the economy.

Since the "stagflation" of the late 1970s and early '80s, when prices spiked even though economic activity was in a slump, the United States has enjoyed relatively modest inflation. In 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index increased only about 1.5 percent.

Besides driving up food and energy bills, revived inflation is also eating up much of the effect of a temporary Social Security tax cut enacted last year to help stimulate the economy.

The tax cut, which began last month, gave consumers the biggest jump in their incomes in almost two years. But a weak increase in spending indicated many people are being cautious with their money, even as the economy improves.

Consumers increased spending 0.2 percent in January, the smallest gain since June, the Commerce Department reported. Personal income jumped 1 percent, reflecting the 2 percentage point reduction from the Social Security tax cut.

Experts say that could neutralize any benefit from the tax reduction.

"Overall we expect consumption to be fairly strong in the first half of the year. But the way things are going at the moment, all the payroll tax cut will do is offset the rise in gasoline and food prices, rather than provide a boost to real spending," said Paul Dales, senior economist at Capital Economics.

The latest survey by the National Association for Business Economics released earlier this month predicted consumer spending will rise 3.2 percent this year, up significantly from the actual spending gain of 1.8 percent in 2010.

For January, consumers boosted spending on durable goods, items like new cars, and on nondurable goods, such as food and gasoline. But they trimmed spending on services.

Economists and researchers are divided about the causes of the current re-emergence of inflation, as well as what the blip in energy and food prices might foretell of the future.

Michael Goodman, associate professor and chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said food and energy price increases are the result of economic and political conditions specific to those markets, and do not constitute a general inflationary trend.

"Part of the increase in fuel prices has to do with the gradual economic recovery, which includes an increase in consumption, and part has to do with the volatility in the Middle East, as well as growth in energy demand in the developing world," Goodman said.

Food prices, he said, can be directly linked to recent weather conditions and floods that have led to poor harvests, as well as increased exports of American grains, both of which tend to put pressure on prices.

But generally, core inflation not including food and energy prices remains low, he said.

"There's no evidence that inflation is now poised to rocket off into the stratosphere," Goodman said.

While increased government spending and deficits might eventually play a part in bringing on more inflation, he said, there's no evidence that's happening now.

But Mark Calabria of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., contends federal monetary policy and deficits are among several factors that have helped push up the prices of fuel, food and other commodities.

"If you look at the harvest figures, it's not as if they've fallen off the table," Calabrese said. "Things like bad harvests can't explain all the increases."

Calabrese also said he sees more inflation on the way as the result of federal money policy, although probably not to the double-digit levels of the late '70s.

"I think even inflation in the 2, 3 or 4 percent range has costs to the economy," he said.

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