Dr. Mike, Escalating Inflation, And The Poor

I have been fortunate to have made a good living. I’m also a planner who saves for the future. However, the recent price increases have taken my breath away. This financial strain has been exacerbated by other factors, including Julie’s illness and inability to contribute to the household income.  

I’m not asking for sympathy; I’m confident my financial state is better than the majority. I’m able to pay my bills and still live a good lifestyle. However, I find myself cutting back and returning to how my parents lived when they raised a large family on a single income. That isn’t necessarily bad, but it is certainly different from the retirement of doctors who lived a generation earlier than me. I ask myself, “If I need to cut back, what about all those less fortunate folks than me?”

In the past we had a cleaning service, now cleaning is done “in house.” I do the heavy lifting, and the kids pitch in.

In the past, I never thought about the cost of groceries. Now, I am a careful shopper. Food items, like steak, have become a special occasion treat. I’m very aware of other cost factors, like food waste. Still, food costs continue to rise, and every product I buy seems to suffer from shrinkflation. Eight cookies are now six cookies, a loaf of bread is ⅔ rds its prior size, and so it goes.

I am shocked by car repair costs. I have three vehicles, one for me, one for Julie, and one for the kids. Still, we are often short of a car. Our cars range in age from 5 to 15 years old. I am not considering buying a new car as the cost of new vehicles has increased dramatically over the last four years. Inflation rose by 21% during that time, but brands like Dodge have increased their prices by almost 50%. The average cost for a new vehicle is around 60K, and many cars are loaded with extras, leaving those prices in the dust. A friend spent over 100K on a very nice pickup truck. It has many bells and whistles but is still a pickup truck.

We have decided to go the repair route with our mostly reliable cars. The repairs we have been making have not involved the engine or transmission. Instead, we replaced tires, fixed sensors, and replaced external components (like the exhaust system). I have spent nearly $7000.00 on these repairs in the last two months. Parts and labor have increased, and repair shops now charge a random service fee. Why?  Who knows.  It is cheaper to repair than buy new, but I still had to come up with 7K to complete the jobs.

Our HVAC system is old, and several weeks ago, it failed during some of the hottest days of the summer. It is getting replaced today. When I had a system installed years ago, it cost me around $4000. The system that I’m replacing it with is nothing fancy. It will do the job, but no one would consider it top-of-the-line. It will cost me $8,300, and that is with a discount. 

Gasoline prices continue to fluctuate, but they are much higher overall than in the past. Utility costs are also higher, with some, like internet service, forever creeping up.

My house insurance policy was sold to a different carrier, and the premium increased by 50% in one year. My car insurance is also on the rise.  

Going to a restaurant used to be a regular occurrence in our household. Now we go as a special treat or for a particular reason. Breakfast was always an inexpensive option, but it is now common to spend close to $50 when Julie and I go out to our monthly Sibling Breakfast. My sister went to a nicer restaurant for lunch and ordered a sandwich and coffee. Her bill (including tip) was almost $40! When she looked into the bill, she found an added hidden surcharge. Why? A friend took his wife and son to a local restaurant in a strip mall; his bill was over $150.  

Beyond actual cost, other charges are also rising. I bought five donuts from a donut shop, and the bill was almost $14. The clerk placed the donuts in a bag. He never talked to me or made eye contact with me. The “suggested tip” for this task was 25% when I checked out. Now, even buying donuts is becoming a special treat.

I have choices. If I want a donut, I will buy one. I can take my family to a restaurant. If the car needs service, I can get it fixed. Yes, I feel the pain, but I can still do it.

What about all of those people who are less fortunate than I am? Those numbers are not small.

The American dream has been to work hard and succeed. When I was growing up, it was possible to have a decent lifestyle on a single income. My father worked, and my mother stayed at home. We owned a simple house; we had a car. The seven members of our family always had food to eat. Yes, money was tight, and sacrifices were made. However, we are all able to attend university and advance ourselves.  

Now, a family can have two full-time earners and only one or two kids, and they still struggle. Expectations are high, with constant pressure to buy. Advertisers hit consumers on all levels, from formal ads to social media to psychologically targeted campaigns.  

Families use credit cards as part of their income stream because they have no choice. The average interest rate on a credit card is over 24%. I have good credit, but if I took a cash advance on my credit card, I would have to pay 30% interest. That is a juice loan. It becomes another significant burden if you rely on a credit card to live.

I sometimes hear well-off individuals complain that increasing the minimum wage will destroy the country and close small businesses. I’m sure there is some truth to this, but there is also quite a bit of exaggeration. In 2020, Illinois’s minimum wage was $9.25/hour, which was raised to $13/hour this year. If you work 40 hours a week at $13/hour, you will make approximately $26,000/year. Living on $26,000/year in 2023 would be very difficult, even if you were single. If you had other responsibilities, it would be impossible. Many minimum-wage jobs don’t include health insurance. Those that do offer health insurance sometimes limit their employees to work just under the time required to get health insurance. If you do have health insurance deductibles are on the rise, so many can’t afford to use their health insurance because they can’t afford the deductible.  

Earners in Illinois do better than their surrounding states. Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa all have a minimum wage of $7.25/hour, less than $15,000/year if you work 40 hours/week.

The gap between the poor and the rich widens as the middle class slowly disappears. As income differences become vast, understanding the plight of lower-income earners becomes unrelatable to the rich. I can hear this echoed in people I know with statements like the poor aren’t working hard enough, the government is too generous with social programs, or health insurance is a privilege instead of a right. The classic, “I had to earn my fortune,” doesn’t do much for a struggling single parent trying to raise a child on $10/hour. Such individuals often forget they were gifted with many benefits that may have included a higher education or various family resources.

I wasn’t raised in a wealthy family, but it was a family that strongly promoted education. Sacrifices were made so that all of us could go to college, and there were enough resources available (with struggle) to make that happen. My family is intelligent, and this also helped us achieve our goals. We all “made it.” However, what we struggled with is different from what many struggled with. What if you aren’t academic? What if you have accruing credit card debt? What if you had to drop out of school? What if the father/mother of your children abandoned you and the child? What if… There is no simple answer to equality.

I do believe that individuals should benefit from hard work, a higher education, or additional training/skills. I am delighted that I could attend medical school. But there is something wrong in a society that sees an obscene gap between the rich and the poor. How many people live from paycheck to paycheck? How many people can’t even do that? Yes, consumerism has caused people to live beyond their means, but that is only part of the problem. When individuals can no longer afford food, something is wrong. Rich people complain that homeless tent dwellers are overtaking their neighborhoods. Do they think that these people want to live in a tent? Not every tent dweller is a drug addict or a free spirit.  

My sister has a friend who lives with her husband in a gigantic home in a wealthy suburb. Her conservative friend denigrates immigrants, the poor, LGBTQ, and the like. How did her friend become so fabulously wealthy? She married the right guy, who inherited a boatload of money from his family. Good for her, now if we could all do just that.

The US introduced a Federal Income Tax at the turn of the last century. Many wealthy Americans supported this tax as they saw the social unrest caused by the inequalities of that time. The rich feared losing everything, so losing a little made sense.

Life for people experiencing poverty improved, and a sizable middle class developed. Social programs were instituted, labor laws were established, unions were formed, and opportunities expanded. Looking at my extended family of siblings and cousins, we all immensely benefited from these changes. If social changes had not happened during the first half of the last century, we would not have been afforded the opportunities that we were given. We would have become laborers, or factory workers, instead of the doctors, university professors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and business owners we became. Think about how we contributed to society just because we were given a chance.

Such opportunities are drying up for people in the new millennium as the gap between rich and poor widens. Are we returning to the early 1900s? What will the result be? It won’t be suitable for any of us.

The RTR is a gathering of van dwellers, many of who live the vanlife due to economic hardship.