Carlos Estrela has two cars, but one sits in his family’s driveway because he said he can’t afford to insure and fuel up both. The family tradition of dining out on Friday nights has ended. At the grocery store, Estrela said, he finds himself choosing among meat, milk, or bread because he can no longer buy all three on his salary as a construction worker.
“It is not going to happen for a long time,” Estrela, 52, said of buying things he used to be able to afford. “At one time, I was middle class, and now I feel like I’m at the poverty line.”
In Massachusetts, unemployment is at its lowest point since the pandemic began and the state’s coffers are overflowing. But a 40-year-high inflation rate — layered onto the state’s already high cost of living — is squeezing people in ways largely unseen in the rosier economic data, eroding their financial cushion and confidence in the economy.
Residents are forgoing grocery store staples or skipping creature comforts. They’re scuttling vacation plans, and dipping into savings to make monthly payments. Some are even reconsidering whether they can afford to continue living here.
The downbeat picture is pulled from Globe interviews with 15 residents who participated in a recent Suffolk University/Globe poll. Yet, the individual struggles also may portend something wider: a state economy at risk of slowing down while it still tries to shake off its pandemic-induced malaise.
“I’m headed for the poor house,” said Allison Kyser, a 55-year-old mail carrier who lives in Mashpee. Kyser said she recently tracked down a free bicycle online, and now rides the 6 miles to work each morning to save on record-high fuel costs. A Cape Cod native, she moved from Missouri just four years ago, but is seeking a job back West to live somewhere cheaper.
“I’m hoping I get it,” she said.
The poll in April found many residents already had a dim view of the country’s economic situation: Nearly 52 percent thought the economy is in a recession or a depression; just 18 percent believed we are in the midst of an “economic recovery.” That’s despite unemployment here dropping to 4.3 percent in March — the lowest rate in years, albeit still above the national mark of 3.6 percent.
A closely watched survey from the University of Michigan found that US consumer sentiment toward the economy in early May dipped to its lowest level since 2011. And in Massachusetts, the economy may already be slowing. The state’s real gross domestic product declined at a 1.0 percent annualized rate during the first three months of 2022, which MassBenchmarks attributed in part to a surge in COVID infections, the “effect of inflation on purchasing power, and weakening consumer and investor confidence.”
For Massachusetts residents, inflation looms large.
“All the prices went up, except for our paychecks and salaries,” said Nicole Coney, 38, a single mother of two who said her income isn’t going as far as it used to. “I find myself asking people to borrow money for gas, which is so 20 years ago. I feel like I was doing that as a kid.”
Coney, a health care worker, said she’s cut back on several expenses, from getting her nails and hair done to having a gym membership. What hurts the most, though, is not being able to afford to enroll her 5-year-old and 9-year-old in extracurricular activities alongside their peers.
“We don’t get to do a lot of things because we can’t afford it,” she said. “I never wanted them to know that we were struggling.”
Others say they’re feeling rising prices in other ways. Alyssa, a 36-year-old Haverhill resident who declined to give her last name, said she no longer buys eggs, with a carton of a dozen hitting $5 in some cases. Michelle Bowe, a 28-year-old software engineer from Athol, no longer buys bread from the store, and instead makes it at home.
“Which is more time consuming,” Bowe said. “I’m trying to save money wherever I can. "
James McGowan, a 42-year-old stay-at-home dad to four kids, said his family is not just feeling inflation but “shrinkflation,” a phenomenon where people pay more or the same price for less.
“Your kid’s doughnut is a tiny bit smaller. Your Wendy’s cheeseburger is ever so smaller,” McGowan said. “I know it’s saving them big money doing it.”
Despite inflation, US retail sales were up in April, according to figures released by the Commerce Department on Tuesday. Andrew Grantham, an economist at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, told Bloomberg the data suggest that inflation’s squeeze on household income ”isn’t yet having a material impact on discretionary spending.”
“Massachusetts is the home of high tech, health care, and education, and the majority of people say right now we’re in a recession or depression, which isn’t borne out by the statistics,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the recent Globe poll. “But sometimes people are ahead of the statistics.”
Indeed, Goldman Sachs chief economist Jan Hatzius expects spending to contract in the coming months, due to inflation and rising interest rates, according to a recent note.
Some people have longer-term concerns. Paul Ivory, 57, said that if the markets don’t improve, he fears it will “completely ruin my retirement plans.” Ivory, who said he has a stable job in the financial services industry, now wonders if he should take advantage of the hot job market to compensate for stock market losses and inflation.
“I’m wondering if I’m missing the boat by not looking for another job with higher pay,” he said.
Jonathan Gruber, a professor of economics at MIT, said there’s more to factoring how people feel about the economy beyond inflation. He thinks consumer sentiment is low, in part, because people hoped the pandemic — and its effect on the economy — would have subsided by now.
“It’s a sort of disappointment that like, we thought it will be over by now and it’s not,” he said. “People want the pandemic to be over, prices to be back where they were.”
A March report from the Brookings Institution found many Americans are better off than they were before the pandemic. The organization estimated that households accumulated $2.5 trillion in excess savings since March 2020, in part because of federal benefits, income growth, and a period of time when spending was constrained by pandemic restrictions.
Gruber pointed to positive aspects of the economy as reason to believe conditions are not as bad as they may seem.
“Anybody who wants a job can get one, wages are going up, and people are switching to careers they find more rewarding,” he said. “Consumer sentiment makes it seem like we are in the Great Depression or something.”
That’s creating pressure, however, that could manifest itself in policy. Governor Charlie Baker has for months prodded lawmakers to embrace $700 million in tax breaks he proposed, and state Senate leaders have signaled they will pursue some type of tax relief package. Some residents said they feel the deliberations have lacked urgency.
“The state politicians, they do not sound the alarm enough. I think they are extremely quiet on this whole issue,” said Francis Heywood, 79, of Randolph. “They should be saying, ‘This is what I’m doing to bring down prices. If I’m not doing it this week, then this is what I’m going to do next week.’ They need to put it in the forefront every day.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.