Opinion: Voters are right to complain about inflation

Against the odds, the Federal Reserve's effort to guide the U.S. economy to a soft landing — reducing inflation without causing a recession — seems to be working. Recent data show a still-growing economy, a gently cooling jobs market and a slower pace of price increases in services. Investors are growing more confident that the Fed won't need to raise its policy rate any higher — and might start cutting in another few months.

President Joe Biden's administration seems baffled that voters aren't celebrating this accomplishment. Opinion polls show they're persistently unhappy with the economy. It shouldn't be a mystery why.

Given the surge in inflation following the pandemic — the headline rate of consumer-price inflation peaked at more than 9% in June 2022 — a relatively painless return to price stability would in fact be a notable achievement. But both the Fed and the administration should be cautious about celebrating too soon. A soft landing still isn't guaranteed, and even if it's accomplished, much of the damage caused by the earlier spike in prices will persist.

Up to now, the Fed has shown that it grasps both these points. After next week's meeting of the central bank's policymaking committee, Chair Jerome Powell will doubtless repeat his now-familiar refrain: Demand and supply are coming back into balance, but there's a ways to go before inflation is securely on track to the committee's target of 2%. And throughout, the Fed has recognized the pain caused by higher prices, partly to underline its unflinching commitment to meeting its goal.

The Biden administration has been less adept. Officials have been eager to declare victory over inflation for months. They've argued that a hot labor market has boosted wages more than prices, leaving workers on average better off, so what's the problem? Maybe voters don't understand economics.

When it comes to managing their budgets, they understand it just fine. Since 2020, prices overall have risen by roughly 20%. Average wages have indeed risen a fraction more. But for many families, the cost of living depends especially on the prices of groceries, utilities, housing and credit. As reporting by Bloomberg Economics and Businessweek shows, groceries are up 25% since 2020; the food budget for a four-person household is up more than 30%. Housing is less affordable than it has been for years, thanks to higher rents, home prices and (especially) mortgage rates. The share of wages spent on interest payments, including credit card bills and auto loans, is at its highest since just before the crash of 2008 — and close to a record. Unsurprisingly, debt delinquencies are rising fast.

In short, many households don't just feel worse off; they are worse off. An abruptly higher cost of living is most painful for those who are on fixed incomes, have lagging wages, or are struggling for whatever reason with financial insecurity. Telling them the economy is in excellent shape only adds insult to injury.

The lesson for policymakers is not just that people are the best judges of their own financial circumstances, which no politician should need to be told. It's also that financially stressed households detest inflation for good reason. Above all, a surge in prices is deeply unsettling for the vulnerable. It's good that the Fed needs no reminding of this: Its commitment to price stability is commendably clear. But if progress on inflation should falter and the costs of disinflation start to loom larger, expect the central bank's critics to take up the theme of "inflation doesn't hurt" with renewed vigor. Their position is bad economics and worse politics.

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