Editor’s Note: Mark Wolfe is an energy economist and serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA), representing the state directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. He specializes in energy and housing affordability and related finance issues. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Rising inflation is hitting all sectors of the economy. The overall rate of inflation on an annual basis reached 7.5% at the end of January, the highest level since 1982. Gas prices, in particular, are rising especially fast, reaching $4.25 a gallon on Wednesday, up from about $2.86 per gallon last March. That means filling a 20-gallon tank right now costs $85, up from $57.20 last year at this time.
A recent report by Moody’s Analytics estimated that inflation was costing the average household $276 more per month, or about $1,100 per quarter. And given the instability in oil markets over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it wouldn’t be surprising if those costs increased to more than $300 a month. Many Americans, especially those who are low- and moderate-income, can’t afford to absorb such rapid price increases.
Unfortunately, the federal government has limited tools to directly help families cope with rising gasoline prices and the overall increase in inflation. The administration could create a new program to help lower-income families pay for the high price of gasoline, raise interest rates to slow the economy, increase pressure on OPEC nations to increase petroleum production and find ways to ease supply chain disruptions. While all of these actions could help, they would take time to work their way through the economy and slow the growth of inflation. Families need help now.
The fastest and most effective way to protect vulnerable citizens from the impacts of global economic instability is to provide a direct payment through the IRS, similar to the three stimulus checks that were sent to families during the height of the pandemic. Those checks helped low- and moderate-income households when schools and child care programs were closed and companies were laying off workers.
But unlike the stimulus checks, these payments should be targeted directly to low- and moderate-income families, or those earning less than 80% of the national median income. That way, the checks reach those in greatest need while also limiting the total cost of the program.
The administration should ask Congress to authorize a payment of $1,100 per household to pay for four months of higher prices going forward, and provide an option for the president to provide a second or even third check to low-and-moderate income families for an additional four months in the event that prices remain high. We don’t know when this crisis is going to end or when prices for essential goods and services will return to more affordable levels.
As the US government works to lower inflation through longer-term solutions, like monetary policy and loosening up supply-side constraints, this stimulus will help low- and moderate-income families afford necessities in the short term. And for those concerned that additional stimulus checks may exacerbate inflation, consider the perspective of a parent trying to afford food or medicine for their children, or buy gasoline to drive them to school or take an ailing grandparent to the doctor. If the government leaves them behind to face these inflationary pressures on their own, they will have to make tough decisions between paying for gasoline and other essentials, like food, medicine or heating.
Of even greater importance, helping families afford higher prices will send a message to the global community that the US will stand behind its citizens, especially those who are least able to pay the higher costs of rising prices on their own.