Consumers are squeezed as inflation outpaces wages

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The notion that consumers will help lead the economic rebound received a stark rebuttal Friday: American families are being squeezed.

Workers saw their inflation-adjusted weekly wages fall 1.6 percent last year — the sharpest drop since 1990 — even as consumer prices rose only modestly.

Families’ spending power sank as a result. Slack pay and scarce job growth are slowing consumer spending, along with tight credit and a rising savings rate. That’s hindering the economy’s ability to mount a strong recovery.

For some families, the overall inflation rate last year — 2.7 percent — understates their burden. Many are struggling with surging costs for health care and college tuition, both of which have been galloping far above the overall inflation rate.

Energy led consumer prices higher last year, offsetting the biggest drop in food costs in nearly a half century, the Labor Department said Friday. Core inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy sectors, rose 1.8 percent. That’s the second-smallest rise in four decades.

But to middle-class people like Angie and Larry Kimbrel of Birmingham, Ala., inflation feels anything but moderate. With three sons, the Kimbrels say they’re just scraping by.

Angie Kimbrel, who works for an insurance underwriter, has gone without raises and bonuses and faces higher health insurance premiums. Work is slow for her husband, a painter, because of the sagging construction and housing markets.

“I haven’t seen anything getting cheaper,” said Kimbrel, 43. She’s facing rising costs for health insurance and gas, in particular.

Economists expect core inflation to remain tame in 2010, giving the Federal Reserve leeway to keep interest rates at record lows to try to invigorate the economy. Inflation and wages remain low because employers can’t or won’t raise pay in an economy that’s shed 7.2 million jobs since the recession began two years ago. The unemployment rate is 10 percent, and the number of jobless has hit 15.3 million, up from 7.7 million when the recession started in at the end of 2007.

The 1.6 percent drop in average weekly earnings for nonsupervisory workers was the worst yearly performance since a 2.5 percent fall in 1990. Inflation-adjusted pay has sunk in five of the past seven years, underscoring the pressures households felt even before the recession.

Over the past 10 years, for example, inflation-adjusted wages grew only about 13 percent — the slowest pace in five decades, according to calculations made by Scott Hoyt of Moody’s And that trend is expected to persist as long as the recovery remains weak and the job market tight.

“When people are unemployed and wages are weak, household spending is depressed and businesses don’t have any pricing power,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s “That is the reason that inflation is not a problem.”

Even though the Consumer Price Index rose 2.7 percent from December to December, more than 50 million Social Security recipients got no cost-of-living benefit increase this year. That’s because overall prices fell from July to September 2009 — the period the government uses to determine Social Security adjustments.

Even as wages, on average, have stagnated, Wall Street is one industry that’s still handing out lavish pay raises. At JPMorgan Chase, for example, the average compensation per employee rose to $121,124 in 2009 from $101,110 a year earlier, the bank said Friday. The average compensation in the investment banking division was about $380,000.

The 1.6 percent drop in inflation-adjusted weekly earnings for the 12 months ending in December compared with a 3.1 percent rise in inflation-adjusted wages in 2008.

While the 1.8 percent rise in core inflation was within the Fed’s comfort zone, it masked the pain consumers felt in their pocketbooks because of the big jump in energy prices and other key items.

Energy prices for the 12 months ending in December 2009 shot up 18.2 percent. That was the biggest jump since 1979. Energy prices had dropped by 21.3 percent during the same period in 2008. The energy surge was led by higher gasoline costs, which rose 53.5 percent after falling 43.1 percent in 2008.

Food prices swung in the opposite direction. They fell 0.5 percent for the 12 months ending in December, the biggest drop since 1961.

Another factor that’s limiting core inflation is housing costs. They dropped 0.3 percent for the 12 months ending in December. It was the biggest annual decline on records dating to 1968. A glut of single-family homes on the market and record apartment vacancy rates have put pressure on housing prices.

Medical costs rose by 3.4 percent in 2009, the biggest advance since a 5.2 percent in 2007. That continued a trend in which the costs of hospital visits, doctors and drugs outpacing overall inflation. College tuition costs jumped by 6 percent in 2009 following a 5.8 percent rise in 2008. Over the past decade, college tuition and fees have soared 92 percent.

Theresa Bryan was in line Friday morning at Dunkin’ Donuts in Haddon Township, N.J., for a cup of coffee. It’s about the only indulgence she’s allowing herself. She says she’s been unable to shop for clothes, shoes or anything for her home for a couple years.

With two kids — one in high school, one in college — and a salary as a mortgage processor stalled for the past few years, she’s felt no benefit from low inflation.

“I don’t notice anything because I’m so broke,” said Bryan, 50.

The CPI is calculated monthly with Labor Department workers checking prices of hundreds of items at stores. The index reflects a market basket of goods such as food, autos and gasoline, which make up about 40 percent of the index, and services, such as hospital visits or haircuts, which make up the other 60 percent.

Economists caution that the economy can’t sustain a strong recovery until wages and job creation strengthens. Business investment and exports driven by a low dollar will help, though.

David Wyss, an economist at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said he expected inflation pressures to remain low through the middle of the decade given the likelihood a modest recovery with unemployment falling only slowly.

“You have to get back to full employment before inflation becomes a major problem,” Wyss said.


Associated Press Writers Geoff Mulvihill in Haddon Township, N.J., and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.