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SALT LAKE CITY — The highest U.S. inflation in some 40 years is the current top economic issue for Utahns, and they say they're feeling it most when it comes to paying for basic life necessities.
The findings are from a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that found inflation was the No. 1 economic concern for Utahns with 50% of respondents rating it as the most pressing fiscal challenge. Housing costs were the next biggest economic woe with 27% giving it top billing.
And when it comes to identifying their spending pain points amid widespread price increases, food and shelter were nearly neck and neck as the most problematic.
With 34% of poll participants calling out groceries as their top spending concern amid rising inflation, housing costs earned a first ranking from 32% of respondents and gasoline prices were a distant third with 12%. Health care costs also ranked among the top four, with 11% of those polled citing it as their number one concern.
The findings are from a poll conducted Feb. 7-17 by Dan Jones & Associates of 808 registered Utah voters. The data has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.45 percentage points.
The latest statewide survey extends a trend revealed in Deseret News polling going back to last year that has seen rising anxiety among Utahns over inflation-driven price increases.
Last July, some 85% of Deseret News poll participants said they were "somewhat" or "very" concerned about inflation, but that figure rose to 93% in a survey conducted in early February. And those sentiments were shared just days before a new federal data update that found U.S. inflation in January shot up to a 7.5% annual rate, the highest since 1982.
While the 7.5% January rate was the highest year-over-year escalation in decades, Mountain West states that include Utah along with Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming saw inflation reach a nation-leading 9% that month.
Phil Dean, former state budget director and public finance senior fellow for the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said Utah consumers are facing wide-ranging price hikes and particularly so on the things that make up life's basic needs. And those in the state's lower earning tiers feel the cost increases the most.
"The poll results don't surprise me," Dean said. "It just reinforces that inflation is the big issue on people's minds right now.
"Housing costs, gas prices, groceries. These are the things we're paying for every day and they are the increases that hit lower income Utahns the hardest."
And that's been the case for Ogden resident Jessica Williams who said she has been astounded by how fast grocery prices have increased in recent months.
"It seems like every trip I make to the store, the things on my list have gone up," Williams said. "Even if I just bought them in, like, the last couple of weeks."
Williams said she and her family are economizing by looking for things on sale and searching for online promo codes or using coupons.
It seems like every trip I make to the store, the things on my list have gone up. Even if I just bought them in, like, the last couple of weeks.
–Jessica Williams, Ogden resident
"Honestly, I've never really used coupons to grocery shop before, but I'm looking for deals and searching for online codes now," Williams said.
A key economic indicator known as the personal consumption expenditure, and one closely watched by monetary policy makers at the Federal Reserve, jumped to 6.1% in January according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Commerce on Friday. It measures the average prices paid for goods and services.
The data is the latest evidence that Americans are enduring sharp price increases that will likely worsen after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Robust consumer spending has combined with widespread product and worker shortages to create the highest inflation in four decades — a heavy burden for households in Utah and across the country, especially lower-income families faced with elevated costs for food, fuel and rent.
At the same time, consumers as a whole largely shrugged off the higher prices last month and boosted their spending 2.1% from December to January, Friday's report said, an encouraging sign for the economy and the job market. That was a sharp improvement from December, when spending fell.
Americans across the income scale have been receiving pay raises and have amassed more savings than they had before the pandemic struck two years ago. That expanded pool of savings provides fuel for future spending.
Inflation, though, is expected to remain high and perhaps accelerate in the coming months, especially with Russia's invasion likely disrupting oil and gas exports. The costs of other commodities that are produced in Ukraine, such as wheat and aluminum, have also increased.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that he would do "everything I can" to keep gas prices in check. Biden did not spell out details, though he mentioned the possibility of releasing more oil from the nation's strategic reserves. He also warned that oil and gas companies "should not exploit this moment" by raising prices at the pump.
On Friday, oil prices were steady after they had reached $100 a barrel in volatile trading on Thursday, before falling back to $92, about where they had started the day. Still, economists at JPMorgan have forecast that oil could reach $110 a barrel as Russia's invasion of Ukraine escalates. Economists at BMO Capital Markets have estimated that each $10-per-barrel increase translates into a 0.4 percentage point rise in inflation.
According to AAA, Utah's current average gas price is $3.41 per gallon, almost $1 per gallon more than a year ago but still under Friday's national average of $3.57 per gallon.
Contributing: Associated Press