By Tessa Gould
Every American deserves the ability to secure food, housing, and basic necessities. However, skyrocketing prices across the economy puts the welfare of U.S. families at risk. It was reported this week that the consumer price index, which measures the average cost of a range of consumer goods, rose 7.5% over the past year. Yet, while the cost of good has risen at the fastest pace since 1982, wage increases have not kept pace. While we all feel the inflation at the grocery store and gas pump, rising prices do not affect all Americans to the same degree. Rural Americans’ spending power decreased 5.2% annually, while urban households saw a drop of 3.5%. As the federal government works to tackle inflation, rural Americans and the unique challenges they face must be top of mind.
We know that rural Americans are hurting due to inflation. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural Americans have lower incomes. 71% of Americans earning less than $40,000 a year told Gallup that current inflation levels affect their standard of living.
Rural Americans also tend to spend more of their limited resources on essentials than those residing in cities. Living in a rural area necessitates spending more money on things like gas and heating, as rural Americans often have longer distances to travel and larger houses, on average, to keep warm.
Because rural communities are earning less and spending more, efforts to offset the pandemic’s financial burden have not eased the challenges related to inflation evenly. The financial recovery has largely fallen along racial, income, and urban and rural lines. While inflation rages, rural Americans are still working towards overcoming the economic effects of COVID-19. Inflation adds additional challenges to an already uphill battle.
With a growing focus on inflation among lawmakers, how can we ensure they give rural Americans their deserved consideration?
First, our leaders need to focus on the root cause of inflation. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have spent too much time politicizing the issue or looking for a quick fix. More can and should be done. It is time to listen to the large swath of experts weighing in and heed their advice. The overwhelming majority of economists speaking out ignore the partisan charges that vaccine mandates or a few large corporations are driving an economy-wide problem. Rather, they point to factors such as labor costs and shortages, supply chain disruptions, and increases in demand as the main components causing inflation, which the government must address. This pandemic will continue to cause a strain in our economy, adding unexpected and novel pressures. Therefore, it is imperative that lawmakers grasp how these variables — supply, demand, and labor — impact the price of goods.
It is also important that our leaders do not treat rural America as a monolith. Diversity in rural America has grown over the last decade and varies by location. For instance, in the rural South, Black people are the largest minority community, while in places like eastern Oklahoma and Alaska, the indigenous population accounts for the biggest minority group. We know that inflation hits people of color and rural communities the hardest, doubling the impact for those falling into both categories. We must consider all facets of the rural population to get this right.
Inflation in the U.S. economy hit a 40-year high last month and without deliberate action, could persist for the foreseeable future. While President Biden and leaders across the country recognize inflation as an issue, they remain far from an accurate, effective, and agreed-upon solution. Tackling inflation will require the involvement of experts and consideration of all communities impacted, especially those hit the hardest. Lawmakers would do well to remember that when rural America succeeds, the country succeeds.
Tessa Gould is the Executive Director of the One Country Project — an organization dedicated to advancing an open dialogue about and opportunity agenda for rural Americans. She has nearly three decades of campaign, communications and policy experience, much of that time spent focused on the Dakotas, including serving as chief of staff to former senator Heidi Heitkamp.