WASHINGTON — As food and gas prices have soared, Stephanie Lane says her family has gone from working class to working poor.
The Pennsylvania mother of four has begun going to a food pantry, and this summer she will be driving her kids across town to get free breakfasts and lunch at a local school. For the first time, the family will be skipping its summer trip to the beach.
"The past few months, inflation really just pushed us over the edge," said Lane. "We have three young kids, we have an older one in college, and just being able to put food on the table is literally a daily struggle."
From moms in Pennsylvania to Black voters in Georgia, key groups of voters crucial to Democratic victories in 2020 are getting hit the hardest by record levels of inflation, deepening Democrats’ struggle to hold on to congressional control in Washington.
Inflation has been cited as a top concern by voters across the board, but economists and pollsters say it isn’t affecting all Americans in the same way. Those with lower incomes, Blacks and Hispanics, and those under 40, are being hit particularly hard given they tend to spend a greater share of their income on food, fuel and housing — areas that have seen some of the biggest price increases over the past year, surveys and polls show.
For Democrats, those demographic groups are the ones they need the most to turn out in November to hang on to power in Washington, or if nothing else, stem their losses. In 2020, it was Black voters in areas like Atlanta, white working class voters in Pennsylvania and young voters in college towns in Michigan and Wisconsin that helped tip crucial swing states in President Joe Biden’s favor.
“The battleground in the midterms is fought out on terrain that Joe Biden won in 2020, which means Democrats have to hold the coalition of suburban voters who defected from Republicans, working people who came out for Joe Biden, young people and people of color who showed up,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. “The job in 2022 is to hold as much of that as humanly possible.”
Yet much of that coalition falls into the categories economists and pollsters say are getting hit the hardest.
In an NBC News poll in May, 79% of people who described themselves as poor or working class said they were falling behind financially, while 60% of those who described themselves as middle class and 46% of higher income earners said they were struggling to keep up financially.
Another group especially concerned with inflation were voters with children and those younger than 50. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, 49% listed cost of living as a top concern compared with 21% of seniors.
That has made it difficult for Democrats to break through on other issues they would like to be discussing to motivate voters to turn out in November, such as the infrastructure law passed last year, efforts to limit access to guns and Republican plans to limit abortion access.
“What’s been the through-line is economic concerns, and the Democrats have tried to address these concerns, but what voters are saying is that so far it isn’t good enough,” said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research who worked on the NBC poll. “Particularly for voters that are critical to Democrats doing well in November — younger voters, African Americans, Hispanics — these are voters who are feeling more pain than other voters, and they’re looking for real solutions.”
Horwitt said that in one recent survey of union members, 20% said they drive more than 100 miles roundtrip to work, making them especially susceptible to the impact of high gas prices.
While more affluent voters are also feeling the effects of inflation, indicating they may cut back on dining out and vacationing if high prices continue, those making less than $50,000 are more likely to say the high prices will cause them to cut back on essentials, like paying bills and purchasing groceries, while putting more on credit cards.
That’s because many lower-income consumers have little wiggle room in their budgets, economists said. Among the lowest 40% of income earners, 84% of their after-tax wages went to pay for housing, food, transportation and energy — items that have seen some of the biggest increase in prices — compared with 32% for the highest income earners, according to a study by TD Ameritrade.
In Pennsylvania, Lane said the bulk of her income goes to housing, gas and rent. She was already shopping at discount grocery stores like Aldi, but even there she has seen prices go up. She said she often tries to do the math over whether the cost of gas is worth the money she would save driving to other stores looking for deals.
"It makes what I used to spend $40 on turn into $50 or $60, and then on top of it the gas, going from filling my tank for $60 to now it being $100 just to fill my tank," she said. "So we're really feeling it here in Pennsylvania."
Black and Hispanics are also more likely to feel a greater burden from inflation because they are already experiencing higher rates of unemployment, lower wages and are less likely to own a home, exposing them to rising rent prices, economists have found. For those living in urban areas, they are more likely to live in locales with few options for groceries.
“Low-income, or in general minority voters, are over represented in the food deserts where consumers have limited access to affordable and nutritious food,” said Munseob Lee, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. “Shelves in the retail stores become frequently empty, and retail products become more expensive due to increased shipping costs. Consumers need to shop more frequently and further to purchase products they want.”
Given the different spending patterns by different groups, a study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that inflation for Blacks was 2% higher than for whites in 2021, and 1.5% higher overall for lower-income earners compared with those with higher incomes, said Michel Weber, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Chicago who worked on the study.
In Arizona and Nevada, where Democrats are fighting to hold on to Senate seats that could determine political control of the chamber, inflation and the economy are the top issues across the board for voters, said Mike Noble, chief of research at OH Predictive Insights.
Both states have seen housing and gas prices rise faster than the national average. In the Phoenix region, where an uptick in Democratic support among suburban voters tipped the scales for Biden, prices rose faster than in any other major metropolitan area in April with inflation of 11% that month compared with 8.3% nationally.
“You essentially have all these pocketbook issues and then compounded, especially in states like Nevada and Arizona, you see that housing and rent affordability is a huge issue,” said Noble. “It is becoming a huge, huge pain point for voters in Nevada and Arizona.”
Atlanta had the second highest rate of inflation behind Phoenix, at 10.8% in April. High voter turnout there, especially among Black voters, made the difference for Biden in 2020, and this year Democrats are fighting to hold on to a Senate seat in Georgia.
Biden has acknowledged there is little left for him to do in the near term to control key drivers of inflation, like rising food and gas prices. He sent a letter to energy company executives Wednesday requesting that they take immediate action to reduce gas prices by expanding refinery capacity without proposing what those actions could be.
Administration officials are also debating whether to lift some Trump-era tariffs on goods to China that could relieve a bit of price pressure, but the effects of that would be limited, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said.
Mainly, the White House has been looking for Congress to take action on legislation that would lower prices on prescription drugs and consumers’ energy bills to give Americans some relief there, but so far those measures have failed to get enough support in the Senate.
With no clear immediate actions that could be taken to address rising prices for food, gas and housing, Democrats’ best messaging strategy may be to attempt to shift the blame for high prices on to corporations, and argue that Republicans would only make the problem worse, Democratic strategists said.
It’s a message they believe will resonate well with lower income and minority voters who are already inclined to vote for Democrats over Republicans, and have a negative view of corporate America, said Ferguson.
“People who are feeling the pinch of inflation the most are also the ones who trust Republicans to solve it the least,” said Ferguson. “Inflation is a problem for Democrats with these voters. But these voters don’t see Republicans as a solution. In fact, they see Republicans as making it worse.”