Mar 4, 2022 8 min read

Inflation Nation

An old rusted car with a cloud of exhaust smoke behind it and balloon-like dollar bills floating up amid the smoke.
Imagine inflation like the exhaust from an engine — the engine of capitalism. (Illustration by Valerie Osier)

Inflation in the United States has hit its highest point since the early 1980s, but people in rural areas face at least a triple bind.

Hey, it’s Luke. Another sad, surreal week in the world and at home, with convoys of Russian troops and ordnance spider-webbing into Ukraine and a much, much smaller convoy of “truckers” puttering through Spokane. Meanwhile, the coming end of Washington’s mask mandate has left people — especially front-line workers (read Elissa’s story if you haven’t already) — with varied, complex feelings on the topic and suddenly turned anti-mask scolds into CDC fans, asking, “Do you believe in science or don’t you?!” If you’re feeling exhausted, you’re not alone. Take care.

The Inequalities of Inflation

Inflation in the United States has hit its highest point since the early 1980s, an entire lifetime for some of us. It’s been 40-damn-years since prices have risen and impacted buying power as quickly as they have in the last year or so.

And while we aren’t alone in the suffering — Inflation is a global problem experienced by 45 of the 46 “developed” countries analyzed by the Pew Research Center late last year — not all of those countries are facing a crisis.

Imagine inflation like the exhaust from an engine — the engine of capitalism. Under “normal” “economic” “conditions” (feel free to put any or all of those words into scare quotes), a certain amount of inflation is expected. The Federal Reserve has a number of tools to regulate those emissions, but in a world system that requires perpetual growth, inflation can never go away completely. Deflation — a bellwether for recession — is often even worse.

For over a decade, the primary fear has been recession, and for eight years after the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed kept interest rates near zero to stimulate spending. Interest rates edged up slowly starting in 2016, then dropped to zero again when Covid hit.

The federal stimulus packages put much-needed money into the hands of normal people, and the Paycheck Protection Act incentivized employers to keep those people employed, and a lot of other money went elsewhere in the system. All that cash floating around waiting to be spent, coupled with persistent supply chain issues, created almost ideal conditions for inflation, and sure enough, the United States economy that had been humming along for almost a decade and a half, is suddenly belching a cloud of smoke and on the edge of crisis.

And of course, America’s inflation crisis will be felt unevenly by its people.

The most obvious dividing line is between rich and poor. The price of a loaf of bread jumping from $4 to $5 is going to be far more disruptive for a person working for minimum wage than it will be for a millionaire. The size of the gap, though, is breathtaking.

According to a Gallup survey from November, 71% of people making less than $40,000 reported feeling at least moderate economic hardship, while the same percentage of people making over $100,000 felt none at all. Even among solidly middle-class folks making up to $100,000, over 47% — nearly half! — reported hardship.

Gallup survey results showing the "effect of recent price increases on U.S. adults' finances."

Now, what qualifies as “hardship” for someone making $99,000 is going to look a lot different from someone making $7.25 an hour, but there is a clear, almost perfect trendline: more money, less pain.

Inflation impacts also demonstrate regional and even urban/rural disparities. While prices have risen roughly 7.5% in the last year across the U.S., the jump was 7.7% in the West and only 6.3% in the Northeast, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.

People in rural areas face at least a triple bind. Not only does the average rural household make barely 72% of the average urban household ($61,800 vs $85,000 as of 2019), prices for food, energy, and even cars tend to be higher. Houses also tend to be larger, making them more costly to heat with that more expensive energy. Gas is more expensive all over the the US, but rural populations drive 40% more on average than city dwellers, compounding that additional expense.

A chart showing the difference in household spending for urban versus rural areas.
CBS News

Last week, the Yakima Herald-Republic dug into the many ways small communities in Central and Eastern Washington are being impacted, from fuel prices and longer delivery distances equating to bigger price increases in stores, to persistent western droughts creating a spike in the price of hay for feeding livestock.

Hector Saez-Nunez, who teaches economics at Yakima Valley College, noted that while farm machinery has gotten a little cheaper — because farmers were reluctant to invest in equipment during the shipping challenges and general uncertainty of the pandemic — prices of agricultural chemicals have risen 50%.

“Price increases can affect producers more than consumers, like a price spike in fertilizers,” Saez-Nunez told the Herald. “These increases may be passed along to consumers, but the effect is smaller because they are diluted into more goods.”

He also noted that our region’s sizable rural Indigenous and Latinx communities are even poorer, on average, than their already struggling white neighbors, meaning inflation is further exacerbating racial inequalities.

Perhaps most bitterly symbolic of how rural areas are left behind by both the explosive growth of market sectors like tech, and ignored in times of crisis like this: the Consumer Price Index doesn’t even track rural prices, focusing exclusively on urban populations.

So while that 7.7% number is an average of the cumulative pain of cities like L.A., Seattle, and metro Spokane, the Feds aren’t even tracking how much worse things might be in Pomeroy, Wilbur, and Othello.

— Luke


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State Bill Aims to Ban Dangerous Chemicals in Cosmetics

Pink nail polish with a poison symbol on it, with mascara, lipstick, lip gloss and a powder compact.
Forever young, forever chemicals. (Illustration by Valerie Osier)

“Forever” isn’t a word you want to see paired with “chemicals.” But “forever chemicals” is the exact term scientists use to describe PFAS — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — because the toxins don’t easily break down, due to their scary-strong carbon-fluorine bonds.

PFAS linger in the environment and human body, threatening health in ways ranging from cholesterol issues to pregnancy complications to cancer. They’re found in non-stick cookware, carpets, food packaging, waterproof jackets, and certain cosmetics. Even tap water.

Remember in 2017 when the city of Airway Heights discovered that foam used in firefighting exercises since the 1970s had contaminated their drinking water supply? The chemical culprit was PFAS. Washington State lawmakers addressed the danger of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging by issuing restrictions four years ago.

Now a bill proposed by State Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, attempts to go further, by restricting PFAS additives in makeup and personal care products like shaving cream and shampoo. Senate Bill 5703 would also ban mercury, formaldehyde, and a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, from cosmetics.

As Melissa Santos reports for Crosscut:

“'We have already banned this in our state for firefighters. Why are we not banning this for 50% of our population?’ said Das, the prime sponsor of SB 5703.”

The bill passed the State Senate on Valentine’s Day and is currently awaiting action by House appropriations.

— Elissa

Mujeres in Action launches bilingual hotline for domestic violence and sexual assault victims

A hotline for domestic violence and sexual assault victims is now open, with Spanish-speaking bilingual victim advocates available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The nonprofit Mujeres in Action launched the program, "Primera Conexión," Feb. 14 for Latinx people in the Spokane area. The hotline can be reached at 509-795-2028 for confidential support in English and Spanish and can connect people to resources, including help filing protection orders and accessing safe housing.

According to the YWCA Spokane, the rate of domestic violence calls to law enforcement in Spokane County is nearly twice the state level.

“Domestic violence is the number one call to law enforcement annually. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated isolation, stress, and issues of violence resulting in an increase of domestic violence cases in our court systems,” the YWCA said in a November press release about the new domestic violence court in Spokane County.

A graph from the Spokane Regional Health District showing domestic violence over time is about double in Spokane County.
A chart from Spokane Regional Health District showing the rate of domestic violence in Spokane County compared to Washington state over time. 

Read more from Samantha Wohlfeil at the Inlander.

— Valerie

Event | MMIW: No More Stolen Sisters Art Show

Photographer and Spokane Tribal member Jeff Ferguson has curated a showcase of traditional and contemporary artwork by over 14 area Native American artists and speakers, centered around the ongoing crisis of MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Persons).

The month-long art show at downtown Spokane’s Gonzaga University Urban Arts Center (GUUAC) begins with special programming this Friday and Saturday, which will include video screenings, ceremony, and speakers.

Guest speakers include: Donell Barlow (Ottawa Tribe/Otter Clan), Margo Hill (Spokane), Paulette Jordan (Coeur d'Alene), Idella King (Northern Arapaho), and Patsy Whitefoot (Yakama/Dine').

Where: GUUAC, 125 S. Stevens, 3rd floor

When: Opening programming: Fri. Mar. 4 5-9 p.m. & Sat. Mar. 5, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Art show runs through March.

More info on MMIW:

— Elissa

Union Story Update

A month ago, in an Additional Context story titled  “Wave of Organization,” I wrote about unionization efforts by workers at Starbucks and REI, two companies founded in Washington State. I also covered corporate pushback to those efforts.

On Mar. 1, a spokesperson for REI (who apparently read the piece) emailed me, requesting, “Please attribute the following as a company statement from REI Co-op.” REI’s rep shared news that SoHo store employees voted 88 to 14 to seek representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The statement went on:

"As we have said throughout this process, REI firmly believes that the decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is an important one, and we respect each employee’s right to choose or refuse union representation. We are, at our core, cooperative. Our employees are the heart of the co-op community, and their expertise, enthusiasm and joy in helping people get outside make us who we are. We greatly appreciate their hard work and dedication through what continues to be a remarkably challenging time in the world."

While that’s genuinely good news, and we hope their PR represents a real shift in the company’s outlook toward worker organizing, it’s also important to remember that REI initially sent workers an email in January stating “we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial” and “a union will not help us achieve [our] mission and purpose.”

— Elissa

Good News, As A Treat

In today’s episode of kids-doing-cool-things-in-the-face-of-adversity, we have a Pasco teen going viral on TikTok for a picture book she created about dealing with anxiety and a Richland teen directing a documentary on his town.

Amara Daniel, 17, created a picture book for a school assignment explaining the physical effects of anxiety and her teacher shared it on TikTok, where it got more than 200,000 views.

“I’m reaching people from all over. People with therapists, people with anxiety, people with kids who struggle with it and maybe don’t know how to help them and I think it’s a great way for them to realize that it’s not just them and it’s not just one of us or a few of us. It’s all of us,” Daniel told Ellie Nakamoto-White of YakTriNews.

In Richland, 17-year-old Augustin Dulauroy directed a documentary film about the history of Hanford and the efforts to clean up the radioactive site. Anna King, of KUOW, reports he got some help from his filmmaker mom to make the feature film that will be distributed on Amazon Prime.

— Valerie



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