Taken together, skyrocketing food, rent, and energy costs are catastrophic for families at or near the poverty line.

Photo by Srikanta H. U on Unsplash

Mid-October seems an odd time to be declaring Christmas stolen by the Grinch of Christmas past.

Nevertheless, COVID-19- or so experts are assuring us- is to be responsible for a very difficult upcoming holiday season, which includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other important mid-winter celebrations.

Inflation is taking a big bite out of consumer confidence and spending in the run up to the biggest retail season of the year. To say that retailers not named “Amazon” could use a decent retail season this year is to say a portrait of Chairman Mao hangs in Chinese Communist Party headquarters.

Of course it does and of course retailers could use a banner year in 2021; most parents and kids, families, friends and pods could probably use one, too.

Whether or not anyone will actually get what they want for Christmas is another matter entirely.

Besides inflation, which until two weeks ago most experts were predicting to be “transitory,”- a dirty word no one’s allowed to use anymore- there are other problems threatening Christmas, and serious ones.

Christmas means winter and energy costs have nearly doubled since last year. That includes petroleum, natural gas, propane and of course, electricity as most electricity is, alas, generated using fossil fuels.

Rents rose precipitously in September, which is bad news for the lowest income Americans. For people at or near the poverty line, the cumulative effect of these financial challenges is devastating.

For a wealthy or middle-class family these setbacks- more expensive food, clothing, and housing, plus more expensive energy might mean cutting a few luxury items from the quarterly budget, perhaps forgo that vacation. It might mean being forced to dip into a savings or retirement account in order to compensate. It isn’t great, no one likes to suddenly have to pay more for everything, but relatively well-off families are better positioned to absorb such fluctuations.

For someone living paycheck to paycheck, for a family less than one-month’s expenses away from homelessness, this is quickly becoming insurmountable.

Nor are these fluctuations expected to go away- not anymore. If anything, the recent increase in rent signals to banking executives and hedge fund managers that inflation is solidifying, gaining traction.

Rents, once raised, are notoriously sticky and tend to stay that way.

For clear-eyed economists, who are pessimists on the best of days, there are red flags as far as Ray Dalio and Warren Buffet can see, which is pretty far.

There are supply line issues impacting trade at every level from delaying delivery on finished consumer goods to raw materials. Rent isn’t the only thing that rose sharply in September; the costs of building a house went up significantly, too. Everything from lumber to labor is suddenly more expensive, and much harder to find.

These supply line and shipping delays have meant early warnings from government officials not to expect everything to arrive as usual by Christmas this year. Of course, rapidly rising inflation and energy costs may mean parents might not be able to afford many presents in any case.

With the news today that winter heating bills are expected to jump by as much 54%, concerns are mounting. Nor are these concerns unfounded. Punishing heating cost increases aren’t hitting all demographic groups equally. Half the homes in the U.S. use natural gas. They will see an average of a 30% increase from 2020, unless they are in the mid-west, in which case the increase will be closer to 47%.

Propane users, which account for only 5% of the U.S. population will see the sharpest increase- 54%.

It sounds like an insignificant number until you realize that the 5% of the U.S. population who relies on propane is 100% comprised of low-income households at or near the poverty line.

There are other potential snarls tearing at the ribbons and bows of family plans over the holiday season, apart from the dire predictions and forebodings of economists.

For reasons not entirely clear, an unusually large number of flights have been delayed, grounded, canceled, redirected and otherwise inconvenienced over the past week. Viral videos of mystified and disgruntled passengers haunting airport waiting areas have been surfacing.

Major network news outlets have been quick to dismiss the phenomenon as unrelated to the recent vaccine mandates pushed by the Biden Administration, but the correlation remains.

The major airline most impacted so far seems to have been Southwest Airlines, which continues to experience logistical snags. Media outlets have been dismissing these concerns as a one-off, much ado about nothing, nothing anyone is worried about.

However, the CEO of Southwest Airlines obviously felt there was something serious going on, so serious in fact that he appeared on CBNBC to address the situation in general and the vaccine mandate in particular. No, he doesn’t support vaccine mandates; but even if he did, the mandates had nothing to do with anything.

While Southwest, including its CEO, continue to blame bad weather for the problems its passengers experienced last weekend, even the host seemed duty-bound to point out, however rude it is to call your guest a liar, that other airlines experienced no such problems.

Most businesses and industries are already facing worker shortages. With these new vaccine mandates, good help is becoming almost impossible to find. With the news that a large percentage of TSA agents are still unvaccinated as their own mandated deadline approaches, delays in holiday travel, and very expensive travel at that, are looking inevitable.

President Biden is said to be currently working with industry leaders to iron out the snags in port backlogs and other major bottlenecks. His administration has also been putting pressure on our trading partners to reduce the price of oil.

As the Democratic Party, and certainly working class families struggling to stay above the poverty line, could use a win right now, it is to be greatly hoped that he will be successful.

(Contributing writer, Brooke Bell)