NEW YORK — Gas prices have fallen from the record highs they reached earlier this summer, but they’re still much higher than a year ago. And with inflation driving up the cost of pretty much everything else, finding the funds to cover your commute may be increasingly tricky.
“Being able to get to work is so essential to people’s basic survival that other things have to go first,” said Abbie Langston, director of equitable economy at PolicyLink, a national research institute. “When we see these massive increases in gas prices, it’s really hurting people.”
Whether you drive, take the bus or ride the subway, here’s what you need to know about how commuters are affected by the cost of living in the United States.
HOW ARE GAS PRICES AFFECTING COMMUTERS?
More than 76% of Americans commute by car. In June, they saw gas prices spike beyond $5 per gallon. While prices have dropped significantly since, the national average price of a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.99 on Thursday, still higher than $3.19 a year ago.
Costanza Bentancor, a paralegal from Mohegan Lake, New York, needs gas to commute 20 minutes each way to work and also uses her car to get to clients, who are families who recently immigrated to the U.S.
“It’s been very difficult, I’ve been learning to budget my money a little bit better,” Bentancor said.
Because of the high cost of living in Westchester County, she has also struggled with moving out of her parents’ home into her own.
AAA survey data published in July found that almost 64 percent of U.S. adults have changed their driving habits or lifestyle since March of this year. The top three changes included driving less, combining errands and reducing shopping or dining out.
“People choose houses, the type of car that they drive and how much they drive based on the assumption of how much they can afford to drive, and when that changes, it becomes really difficult to give people alternatives,” said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Washington, D.C.
For workers who take public transportation, increasing gas prices might not directly affect their bus or train fare, but the rising costs of living might affect their ability to afford those tickets.
WHICH COMMUNITIES ARE THE MOST AFFECTED?
Housing and transportation combined account for more than half of an average families’ spending, according to the Brookings Institution’s Affordability Index. For low-income families, the percentage spent on housing and transportation can be even higher, meaning they’re hit hardest by rising prices.
“People are really struggling right now. They are forgoing childcare, they are not seeking medical care or rationing prescription drugs,” said Langston, who points out that one in three people in the U.S. are at or near poverty.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many inequalities in society, including who got to work from home.
“The majority of the Latino and immigrant workforce doesn’t have the luxury to work from home,” said Yanira Merino, national president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
Only 16.2% of Latino workers and 19.7% of Black workers were able to work from home in 2020, compared to 37% of Asian workers and 29.9% of non-Hispanic white workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Low-income families are also more likely to rent their homes, which then makes them more vulnerable to the rising prices of housing, according to Freemark.
Vicente Gonzalez, a postal worker in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, has seen members of his community move farther away because they can’t afford to pay their rent.
“A lot of people are moving to cheaper areas, but there’s no jobs out there so they end up driving all day,” said Gonzalez. “As much as people want to buy an electric car and save gas, they really have no choice.”
The average worker commutes for 26.9 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, workers of color have longer commute times than white workers, regardless of income level, according to data by the National Equity Atlas.
HOW DO EXPERTS RECOMMEND TACKLING THIS ISSUE IN THE LONG TERM?
San Jose State University professor Asha Weinstein Agrawal believes that in order to make a long-term change, government officials need to invest in public transportation but also incentivize the use of fuel efficient vehicles.
“If we truly want to reduce people’s transportation costs, it’s not something you can do in a month. But we should help them get more electric vehicles. That is going to have far more impact, especially low-income families,” she said.
E-bikes or electric vehicles are also a more environmentally-friendly mode of transportation, Freemark said.
Alternatively, both Langston and Freemark believe that raising people’s wages and developing affordable housing would help to create an environment where everyone can weather hard times.
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