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Americans on low incomes are hit harder by high gas prices due to the war in Ukraine


Gas prices are hitting new records as the invasion of Ukraine disrupts oil markets, and that is taking a toll on people with modest incomes, with inflation already pushing up prices for things like food, clothing and rent. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: At a discount gas station in Boston, the cars are lined up waiting at the pumps. Gas is about 20 cents cheaper here than other places, but it's still $4 a gallon. Renea Paige is filling up her tank.

RENEA PAIGE: It's scary. Yeah. I'm waiting for it to hit $5 or $6. I don't want it to, but it might.

ARNOLD: Paige is an administrative assistant at a hospital. And she says the gas prices are coming on top of the rising cost of just so many other things.

PAIGE: You do cringe because it's like, OK, the meat prices are so high. Do I cut back on that and get something different, you know what I mean? So you do make a lot of substitutions because I feed a family where it's, like, eight of us. So yeah (laughter) it can be very difficult.

ARNOLD: The average price of gas around the country is now $4.25 a gallon. In some places, it's much higher. And if you don't make a lot of money and have a long commute, that is getting pretty painful.

JOE BRUSUELAS: Rising prices will disproportionately hit poor, working-class and middle-class Americans.

ARNOLD: Joe Brusuelas is the chief economist at the Wall Street research firm RSM. He says it's been a few generations since the price of just about everything, including gas, has gone up all at once.

BRUSUELAS: So Americans are going to experience a once-in-a-lifetime source of sticker shock through the remainder of the year. This is something that Americans just aren't accustomed to because we haven't seen it since the mid-1970s.

ARNOLD: James Bushnell is an energy economist at UC Davis. He says back in the '70s, though, oil price shocks were much more damaging.

JAMES BUSHNELL: Back then, the economy was much more dependent on oil as an input to a lot of different economic activity.

ARNOLD: Like, say, manufacturing. But these days, it's different. Most companies don't use much oil. Most people don't heat their houses with oil anymore. Those big signs at gas stations make us notice the price of gasoline all the time. But Bushnell says most cars and trucks are way more fuel efficient these days.

BUSHNELL: The rule of thumb is the average customer uses about 400 gallons per year. And so when the price goes up by a dollar a gallon, we're looking at another $400. That's not nothing for people.

ARNOLD: But that is an average, so some people barely drive at all, while others have long commutes, maybe in rural areas, and they're getting hit much harder, not to mention people who drive all day long for a living.

ARJENIS DOMINGUEZ: I need to use the gas every day for making money.

ARNOLD: Back at the gas station, Arjenis Dominguez is an Uber driver who's filling up his big Toyota Highlander SUV.

And is that a hybrid or no?

DOMINGUEZ: No, that's not a hybrid.

ARNOLD: So you're burning some gas.

DOMINGUEZ: Yeah, a lot (laughter) maybe $50 or $60 per day.

ARNOLD: Sixty bucks a day adds up quick. But Dominguez says he's working more with the pandemic winding down, and he's a young single guy without a lot of expenses. So he says he's just trying not to worry too much about gas prices.

DOMINGUEZ: I don't care. I'm trying to live life every day.

ARNOLD: And if it gets too expensive to live in Boston, he's got a pretty good-sounding backup plan.

DOMINGUEZ: If I can't live through here, I come back to my city, bro, Dominican Republic. I can live in my place with less money than here (ph).

ARNOLD: Of course, gas prices are up so high because Russia is invading Ukraine. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 79% of Americans supported a ban on Russian oil imports to the U.S., even if that means higher gas prices.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Arnold
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.