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Pennsylvania Swing District Expresses Concern About Inflation

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As the U.S. economy continues to recover from the pandemic, prices have been creeping up on everything from groceries to used cars to airline tickets. Here's President Biden speaking to this very point a couple of weeks ago.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We see some price increases. Some folks have raised worries that this could be a sign of persistent inflation. But that's not our view.

MARTINEZ: And yet polls show many Americans are worried about inflation, rising costs. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been reporting on the Biden administration's economic response. Asma, the U.S. economy on track for what looks like record growth. But your reporting suggests a lot of people don't actually feel all that confident.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: That's right. You know, frankly, a lot of people are feeling pessimistic. Republicans have been trying to seize on rising prices by warning people that the country is on this verge of 1970s-style inflation. What's interesting is when that concern began to move outside of GOP circles to Democrats and independents. I was speaking with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. She's been advising the Biden White House. And she told me about a month or so ago, she began to hear from voters about just how big of a concern rising costs and the rising cost of living had become for them.

CELINDA LAKE: It hasn't really impacted Democrats or Republicans. But voters want everybody to be aware of it and on top of it.

KHALID: And Lake says she doesn't think voters are assigning blame yet. But that doesn't mean they won't.

MARTINEZ: So Asma, what are you hearing?

KHALID: Well, I think one way to try and understand the political ramifications of the economy is to go somewhere where the politics could really be at play next year in the midterms. So I traveled up to Northampton County in eastern Pennsylvania. It's a place where Republicans are hoping to unseat the Democratic congresswoman. And it's one of these rare counties that went for President Obama, then for President Trump and most recently for President Biden. So it is quite the political pendulum.

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KHALID: I met Elmo Frey Jr. at a local diner. He's sipping coffee. He's a retired judge. And he tells me he drives a lot. And lately, it feels like he's spending a lot more money to fill up his car.

ELMO FREY JR: What bothers me the most right now is gas, surely. So when you're retired and you're on a fixed income, it affects you a little bit - more than somebody that's working, maybe.

KHALID: I heard concerns like this from just about everyone, no matter their politics. Outside of a Walmart, in the parking lot, I met Lori LaPenna.

LORI LAPENNA: Well, everything is getting more expensive. Even though we're non-stop working, everything is so expensive. I'm trying to cut back on everything.

KHALID: Like groceries, do you mean? Or what do you mean?

LAPENNA: Oh, yeah. This is, like - I go through a lot of groceries. But I try to shop for the best bargain.

KHALID: She was putting groceries in her trunk as we spoke.

When did you begin to notice the prices were going up?

LAPENNA: When Biden became president.

KHALID: That is not a particularly unusual response for Republicans. Whether or not prices actually started going up in January of this past year, that's when Republicans tell me they started feeling it. Polling does show political identity shapes people's views of the economy. And it means someone like LaPenna, who's already skeptical of Biden's economic agenda, thinks inflation is going to get worse if the president's big spending plans go through, the trillions of dollars for things like free community college and free preschool.

LAPENNA: We're going to be absorbing all the costs for everything that he wants to do.

KHALID: Of course, not everyone blames Biden. Some people blame the pandemic. Others blame the natural ebbs and flows of the economy. But no matter who they blame, a lot of people are feeling the pinch. Even among the Democrats I talked to, they don't feel like the economy is roaring back.

NAZIRAH LEWIS: The food went up. Groceries went up, the gas, insurance.

KHALID: Nazirah Lewis says this has been the toughest economic time of her life. Even working full time as a nurse throughout the pandemic, she's still struggling to pay bills with three kids. The issue isn't just prices, she says, it's wages. Sarah Scully agrees. She used to work at a farm. Now, because of the pandemic, she's unemployed.

SARAH SCULLY: Because I have a lot of experience in various fields, it's not that I can't get a job. It's that there's too many people and not enough non-minimum wage jobs.

KHALID: She says she kind of expects prices to go up. The problem, she says, is how little people are paid.

SCULLY: Wages in this area haven't changed in 10 years. I mean, we're still close to $7 an hour. It's not that we don't have people here who know how to do higher qualification jobs. It's just there aren't enough.

KHALID: Both Scully and Lewis say they appreciate the new programs the Biden administration has put in place, things like the expanded child tax credit. But the big question politically is how this inflation fear might affect people in the middle, particularly women who voted for Biden reluctantly, women like Maureen Nicholas, who was a Republican prior to this last election.

MAUREEN NICHOLAS: And I voted for Biden.

KHALID: You did?

NICHOLAS: Yeah.

KHALID: But you didn't love it?

NICHOLAS: But I didn't want to.

KHALID: She says the economy feels pretty bad right now.

NICHOLAS: Price increases astronomical...

KHALID: Health care costs, she says, are out of control. I asked her how she feels the president she voted for is doing.

NICHOLAS: I do feel as though he's not addressing what people are spending most of their money on, which is health care. It used to be a tiny little percentage. Now it's a big, fat piece of that pie chart.

MARTINEZ: Asma, how is the Biden administration responding to concerns such as these?

KHALID: Well, it's precisely women like Nicholas that Democrats do not want to lose, white women who were willing to give Biden a chance. And look; the White House is aware that inflation is a political threat that Republicans are eager to use against them. But they've also been insisting that inflation is temporary. And it's a result, they say, of pent-up demand during the pandemic and all these supply chain kinks that will eventually sort out. I spoke to Jared Bernstein about this. He's one of Biden's top economic advisers. He likes to remind people there are more facts in this economic story. And he says the country is in the midst of a recovery - a strong one, he points out.

JARED BERNSTEIN: How to map these facts onto messaging is still a challenge, especially in a period where these temporary price pressures, you know, are hitting people in ways that they recognize.

MARTINEZ: Now, the Biden administration has been proposing trillions, trillions of dollars in spending. How do the inflation concerns tie into that?

KHALID: You know, initially, it seemed like the White House was brushing aside criticism, even from people like Larry Summers, who was a top economic adviser to former President Barack Obama. Summers told me there are real concerns.

LAWRENCE SUMMERS: The risks that we will have excessive inflation, that we will have a downturn or that we will find ourselves in a stagflation situation are, I think, very substantial.

KHALID: We've begun to see a pivot in how the White House is selling the president's plans. They're saying investments like more child care actually have the potential to reduce prices in the long run. But Republicans are already using inflation as a fresh attack on big government, something they think has political saliency when people are frustrated seeing their grocery bills. Of course, who wins that messaging battle might actually determine the fate of Biden's economic agenda.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you very much.

KHALID: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDESKI MARTING AND WOOD'S "UNINVISIBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.