Concerns about a declining standard of living have spiked in the last six months, with worries about inflation overall outstripping distress -- itself high -- about rising gasoline prices. Four in 10 Americans say they've cut back on their driving, and three in 10 report trouble paying other household bills.
Sixty-eight percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say they're worried about maintaining their standard of living, up 17 points just since December. Women are more concerned than men (74 percent vs. 62 percent), the poor more so than the wealthy.
On gas, more than six in 10 report financial hardship caused by higher prices at the pump, and 41 percent say they've cut back on their driving to deal with it. While that's far and away the leading strategy, others say they're buying or saving up for smaller cars, cutting back on other expenses or shopping around for cheaper gas.
These economic jitters are reflected in ABC's separate weekly measure of consumer confidence. Seventy-seven percent of Americans now say the economy's getting worse, matching the record high, set in late 1990, in polls dating to 1981. Ratings of current economic conditions are at a 14-year low.
These views in turn have a political impact: As reported Monday, 82 percent say the country's seriously off on the wrong track, the highest since mid-1992 and a point from the record in polls since 1973. And George W. Bush's job approval rating has hit a career low 31 percent, a level unseen since Jimmy Carter in 1980.
INFLATION: The federal government issues its monthly inflation report this morning, and prices clearly are a concern to average Americans. While 20 percent cite the price of gasoline as the single most important economic issue facing their families, more, 32 percent, say it's rising prices more generally.
And while concern about gasoline prices is up a scant 4 points since January, concern about inflation more generally has risen by 9 points, supplanting worry about health care costs.
There's a division between the sexes: Men are more apt to complain about gas prices; women, about inflation in general.
Apart from gasoline, three in 10 Americans report trouble paying their other household bills because of rising prices, with a vast income gap: Among people with household incomes under $20,000, 54 percent report problems paying household bills, compared with just 14 percent in $100,000-plus households.
The biggest single household item causing concern, by far, is the price of food, cited by 56 percent of those who report trouble paying household bills. That's followed by utility bills, 21 percent; and health care expenses, 15 percent.
GAS: Sixty-three percent report financial hardship because of gas prices; about a third say it's a serious hardship. These have stabilized since last month although prices have continued to rise; that suggests people either are adjusting or finding workarounds.
As noted, four in 10 say they're driving less; beyond simply cutting back that includes carpooling or using mass transit. Among the solutions respondents offered: "Searching for the cheapest gas stations," "multi-tasking, doing two or more things when going out," "drive slower and use less gas," "having the kids ride their bikes to school," and "I don't eat out any longer."
Another offered a political approach to higher gas prices: "Voting for Obama." (Americans overall trust Barack Obama over John McCain to handle gas prices by a 48-28 percent margin.) Others just suck it up: "I am living with it," said one respondent. "Just cope with it," said another.
The pain hits hardest among low-income Americans; 56 percent of those with household incomes under $20,000 a year report serious hardship from gas prices, compared with 19 percent of those in $100,000-plus households.
HOW MUCH? With gas now averaging a record $3.72 a gallon, what'll it take for those who haven't yet cut back on their driving to do so? The average answer is $5.65, ranging from a high of $7.21 for single men and $6.67 for Westerners (gas is costlier there) to lows of $4.96 for married women and $4.74 for Midwesterners.
There's a range of blame for gas prices, but oil companies take much of the heat: Three in 10 mainly blame them (or "greed" or profiteering), followed by the Iraq war (12 percent), the Bush administration (10 percent), market forces (8 percent) and OPEC (9 percent).
Still, for all their dissatisfaction with the price of gas, Americans divide evenly -- 46-47 percent -- on the idea of suspending the federal gasoline tax this summer. And when presented with arguments from critics that suspending the gas tax might not reduce prices much and would cut billions from the highway trust fund, opposition rises to 60 percent.
METHODOLOGY This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 8-11, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,122 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 206 black respondents. The results from the full survey have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.