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Wealthier Americans are beating inflation, but the poorest are much worse off

February 28, 2022, 10:04 PM UTC

The effects of inflation are hitting lower-income Americans harder than wealthier households — even among those who received pay raises.

A recent analysis using the Penn Wharton Budget Model estimates that last year’s wage gains allowed those in households generally earning between $60,000 and $100,000 to beat inflation. The Consumer Price Index, a widely cited inflation gauge, reported prices were up 7% year-over-year at the end of 2021 and rose 7.5% in January.

However, those earning less than $20,000 weren’t as fortunate and even those in the lower middle class struggled to keep pace as well. Despite many companies boosting their minimum wages, the lowest-income households found their pay bumps only covered about a third of the cost of inflation. Overall, these households saw an average annual income increase of $578 in 2021, but costs for expenses rose $1,837, according to the report. 

Overall, Wharton’s research found that inflation in 2021 meant the average U.S. household had to spend around $3,500 more to pay for the same goods and services. The lowest income households saw about a $2,000 jump, or about a 6.9% increase, while those earning over $150,000 paid about $5,800 more for the same purchases — 6.1% more. 

Richer Americans are actually seeing slightly less inflation. Wharton reports that’s because lower-income Americans tend to spend more of their income on basic necessities such as energy, food, and transportation, which saw faster price increases in 2021 than prices of less essential products, like televisions, for example.

There’s a "divergence in inflation experiences across income groups,” says Rodney Ramcharan, a professor of finance and business economics at the USC Marshall School of Business 

"People of a higher income are going to be able to shop online and be able to substitute between different kinds of goods a lot more easily. Low income folks may be less savvy about being able to find the best prices online, and they may also have less access to substitution,” Ramcharan tells Fortune.  

Essentially, if you're higher income it's easier to make adjustments to your budget. Instead of regularly shopping at Whole Foods, for instance, you can shop at Walmart or Aldi for lower-priced groceries. And so while higher-income Americans are also seeing the impact of inflation, it's easier for them to scale back on quality to keep their monthly expenses in line. 

But those who are lower income don't always have access to alternative sources. If you’re already shopping at Walmart or Dollar General, there may not be a cheaper alternative, Ramcharan says. "They have less ability to soften the blow.”

Yet, it’s not only wage increases and shopping decisions that have helped Americans navigate the effects of inflation — increased savings have helped, too. Median checking account balances were just under $1,300 at the end of 2021, according to the recently released JPMorgan Chase Institute Household Finances Pulse report. That’s about 65% higher than pre-pandemic levels for low-income families and a 30-35% increase for higher income families.

Given that the typical low-income family had a cash balance of about $800 prior to the pandemic, the increase to $1,300 in savings is helpful, but it’s barely half of what researchers recommend families need to weather inflation, Fiona Greig, co-president of JPMorgan Chase Institute wrote of the findings. 

And it's not likely that balance will stay high much longer. Cash balances among households in the report’s lowest income bracket (earning less than roughly $27,000) have been rapidly shrinking since there are no more stimulus checks and advanced child tax credit payments have ended.

If savings continue to erode, many Americans will struggle to make ends meet as costs continue to soar.

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