Inflation eased slightly in April after months of relentless increases but remains near a four-decade high, imposing a continuing financial strain on American households.
Consumer prices jumped 8.3% last month from a year ago, the government said Wednesday. That was below the 8.5% year-over-year surge in March, which was the highest since 1981. On a monthly basis, prices rose 0.3% from March to April, the smallest rise in eight months.
Still, Wednesday's report contained some cautionary signs that inflation may be becoming more entrenched. Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, so-called core prices jumped twice as much from March to April as they did the previous month. The increases were fueled by spiking prices for airline tickets, hotel rooms and new cars. Apartment rental costs also kept rising.
Those price jumps "make clear that there is still a long way to go before inflation returns to more acceptable levels," said Eric Winograd, U.S. economist at asset manager AB.
Even if it moderates, inflation will likely remain high well into 2023, economists say, leaving many Americans burdened by price increases that have outpaced pay raises. Especially hurt are lower-income and Black and Hispanic families, who on average spend a greater proportion of their incomes on gas, food and rent.
Wednesday's report also underscored the challenges for the Federal Reserve and White House in their struggles to tame inflation.
In April, a fallback in gas prices helped slow overall inflation. Nationally, average prices for a gallon of gas fell to as low as $4.10 in April, according to AAA, after having spiked to $4.32 in March. But since then, gas prices have surged to a record $4.40 a gallon.
Grocery prices, too, are still soaring, in part because Russia's invasion of Ukraine has heightened the cost of wheat and other grains. Food prices rose 1% from March to April and nearly 11% from a year ago. That year-over-year increase is the biggest since 1980.
Turmoil overseas could potentially accelerate inflation in the coming months. If the European Union, for example, decides to bar imports of Russian oil, world oil prices could rise. So could U.S. gas prices. And China's COVID lockdowns could worsen supply chain snarls.
In April, airfares soared a record 18.6%, the largest monthly increase since record-keeping began in 1963. And hotel prices jumped 1.7% from March to April.
Southwest Airlines said last month that it foresees much higher revenue and profits this year as Americans flood airports after having postponed travel for two years. Southwest said its average fare soared 32% in the first three months of the year from the same period last year.
There are, though, signs that supply chains are improving for some goods. Wednesday's report showed that prices for appliances and clothing both fell 0.8%, while the cost of used cars dropped 0.4%, the third straight decline. Used cars and other goods drove much of the initial inflation spike last year as Americans stepped up spending after vaccines became widespread.
Nonetheless, inflation is posing a serious political problem for President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats in the midterm election season, with Republicans arguing that Biden's $1.9 trillion financial support package last March overheated the economy by flooding it with stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment aid and child tax credit payments.
U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, blamed the Biden White House for "choking the supply of goods in America with more burdensome regulations while Democrats pour fuel onto the spending fire with more subsidies.
"Inflating demand while constraining supply only leads to one place: higher prices," Hagerty said.
On Tuesday, Biden sought to take the initiative and declared inflation "the No. 1 problem facing families today" and "my top domestic priority."