A Holiday Season Divided by Inflation and Economic Struggles

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November has been busier than expected at the Langham Hotel in Boston as luxury travelers book rooms in plush suites and hold meetings in gilded conference rooms. The $135-per-adult Thanksgiving brunch at its in-house restaurant sold out weeks ago.

Across town, in Dorchester, demand has been booming for a different kind of food service. Catholic Charities is seeing so many families at its free pantry that Beth Chambers, vice president of basic needs at Catholic Charities Boston, has had to close early some days and tell patrons to come back first thing in the morning. On the frigid Saturday morning before Thanksgiving, patrons waiting for free turkeys began to line the street at 4:30 a.m. — more than four hours before the pantry opened.

The contrast illustrates a divide that is rippling through America’s topsy-turvy economy nearly three years into the pandemic. Many well-off consumers are still flush with savings and faring well financially, bolstering luxury brands and keeping some high-end retailers and travel companies optimistic about the holiday season. At the same time, America’s poor are running low on cash buffers, struggling to keep up with rising prices and facing climbing borrowing costs if they use credit cards or loans to make ends meet.

The situation underlines a grim reality of the pandemic era. The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to make borrowing more expensive and temper demand, hoping to cool the economy and bring the fastest inflation in decades back under control. Central bankers are trying to manage that without a recession that leaves families out of work. But the adjustment period is already a painful one for many Americans — evidence that even if the central bank can pull off a so-called “soft landing,” it won’t feel benign to everyone.

“A lot of these households are moving toward the greater fragility that was the norm before the pandemic,” said Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank.

Many working-class households fared well in 2020 and 2021. Though they lost jobs rapidly at the outset of the pandemic, hiring rebounded swiftly, wage growth has been strong, and repeated government relief checks helped families amass savings.

But after 18 months of rapid price inflation — some of which was driven by stimulus-fueled demand — the poor are depleting those cushions. American families were still sitting on about $1.7 trillion in excess savings — extra savings accumulated during the pandemic — by the middle of this year, based on Fed estimates, but about $1.35 trillion of it was held by the top half of earners and just $350 billion in the bottom half.

At the same time, prices climbed 7.7 percent in the year through October, far faster than the roughly 2 percent pace that was normal before the pandemic. As savings have run down and necessities like car repair, food and housing become sharply more expensive, many people in lower-income neighborhoods have begun turning to credit cards to sustain their spending. Balances for that group are now above 2019 levels, New York Fed research shows. Some are struggling to keep up at all.

“With the cost of food, the explosive cost of eggs, people are having to come to us more,” said Ms. Chambers of Catholic Charities, explaining that other rising prices, including rent, are intensifying the struggle. The location planned to give out 1,000 turkeys and 600 gift cards for turkeys, at its holiday distribution, along with bags of canned creamed corn, cranberry sauce and other Thanksgiving fare.

Tina Obadiaru, 42, was among those who lined up to get a turkey on Saturday. A mother of seven, she works full time caring for residents at a group home, but it isn’t enough to make ends meet for her and her family, especially after her Dorchester rent jumped last month to $2,500 from $2,000.

“It is going to be really difficult,” she said.

The disproportionate burden inflation places on the poor is one reason Fed officials are scrambling to quickly bring price increases back under control. Central bankers have lifted interest rates from near zero earlier this year to nearly 4 percent, and have signaled that there are more to come.

But the process of lowering inflation is also likely to hurt for lower-income people. Fed policies work partly by making it expensive to borrow to sustain consumption, which causes demand to decline and eventually forces sellers to charge less. Rate increases also slow down the labor market, cooling wage growth and possibly even costing jobs.

That means that the solid labor market that has buoyed the working class through this challenging time — one that has particularly pushed up wages in lower-paying jobs, including leisure and hospitality, and transportation — could soon crack. In fact, Fed officials are watching for a slowdown in spending and pay gains as a sign that their policies are working.

“While higher interest rates, slower growth and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at a key Fed conference in August. “These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation.”

Central bankers believe that a measure of pain today is better than what would happen if inflation were allowed to continue unchecked. If people and businesses begin to expect rapid price increases and act accordingly — asking for big raises, instituting frequent and large price increases — inflation could become entrenched in the economy. It would then take a more punishing policy response to bring it to heel, one that could push unemployment even higher.

But evidence accumulating across the economy underscores that the slowdown the Fed has been engineering, however necessary, is likely to feel different across different income groups.

Consumer spending overall has so far been resilient to the Fed’s rate moves. Retail sales data moderated notably early in the year, but have recently picked back up. Personal consumption expenditures aren’t expanding at a breakneck pace, but they continue to grow.

Yet underneath those aggregate numbers, a nascent shift appears to be underway — one that highlights the growing divide in economic comfort between the rich and the poor. Credit card data from Bank of America suggest that high- and middle-income households have replaced lower-income households in driving consumption growth in recent months. Poorer shoppers contributed one-fifth of the growth in discretionary spending in October, compared with around two-fifths a year earlier.

“This is likely due to lower-income groups being the most negatively impacted by surging prices — they have also seen the biggest drawdown of bank savings,” economists at the Bank of America Institute wrote in a Nov. 10 note.

Even if the poor feel the squeeze of elevated prices and higher interest rates and pull back, the economists noted that continued economic health among richer consumers could keep demand strong in areas where wealthier people tend to spend their money, including services like travel and hotels.

At the Langham, a newly renovated hotel in a century-old building that originally served as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, there is little to suggest an impending slowdown in spending.

In “The Fed,” the hotel bar named in a nod to the building’s heritage, bartenders are busy every weeknight slinging cocktails with names like “Trust Fund Baby” and “Apple Butter Me Up” (both $16). When guests come back from shopping on nearby Newbury Street, the hotel’s managing director, Michele Grosso, said, their arms are full of bags. He sees the fact that the Thanksgiving brunch sold out so fast as emblematic of continued demand.

“If people were pulling back, we’d still be promoting,” he said of the three-course, family-style meal. “Instead, we’ve got a waiting list.”

The consumption divide playing out in Boston is also clear at a national level, echoing through corporate earnings calls. American Express added customers for platinum and gold cards at a record clip in the United States last quarter, for instance, as it reported “great demand” for premium, fee-based products.

“As we sit here today, we see no changes in the spending behaviors of our customers,” Stephen J. Squeri, the company’s chief executive, told investors during an earnings call last month.

Companies that serve more low-income consumers, however, are reporting a marked pullback.

“Many consumers this year have relied on borrowing or dipping into their savings to manage their weekly budgets,” Brian Cornell, the chief executive of Target, said in an earnings call on Nov. 16. “But for many consumers, those options are starting to run out. As a result, our guests are exhibiting increasing price sensitivity, becoming more focused on and responsive to promotions and more hesitant to purchase at full price.”

The split makes it hard to guess what will happen next with spending and inflation. Some economists think the return of price sensitivity among lower-income consumers will be enough to help overall costs moderate, paving the way for a notable slowdown in 2023.

“You get more promotional activity, and companies starting to compete for market share,” said Julia Coronado, founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives.

But others warn that, even if the very poor are struggling, it may not be sufficient to bring spending and prices down meaningfully.

Many families paid off their credit card balances during the pandemic, and that is now reversing, despite high credit card rates. The borrowing could help some households sustain their consumption for a while, especially paired with strong employment gains and recently fallen gas prices, said Neil Dutta, head of U.S. economics at Renaissance Macro.

As the world waits to see whether the Fed can slow down the economy enough to control inflation without forcing the country into an outright recession, those coming to Catholic Charities in Boston illustrate why the stakes are so high. Though many have jobs, they have been buffeted by months of rapid price increases and now face an uncertain future.

“Before the pandemic, we thought in cases,” Ms. Chambers said, referencing how much food is needed to meet local need. “Now we think only in pallets.”