Minnesota poll: Most feel inflation ‘stress’ but not to same degree

A gas station sign shows prices at $5 a gallon.
Prices for a gallon of gasoline are posted on the sign of an Exxon gas station in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington in March 2022. Eight in 10 Minnesota voters say recent inflation has caused financial stress, but the bulk say it’s caused “minor” burdens on their households.
Alex Brandon | AP file

For Ted Tollefson, who teaches college-level psychology courses, the move to more remote classes has had an upside: He no longer makes the 140-mile round trip commute to St. Paul from his home in Frontenac along the Mississippi River. 

That saves him at the gas pump. But Tollefson, who is semi-retired, still feels the sting of higher prices to fill his kitchen. 

“I pay cash now for groceries, and I walk into a store with either $40 or $50. I just buy slightly fewer things or I buy less-fancy things,” Tollefson said, describing how he puts items back if the total on the cash register exceeds the amount of money he brought with.

“My happiness is not dependent upon how thick my wallet is,” he added. “As long as I have healthy food two or three times a day, that's fine with me.”

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Tollefson is among the roughly 51 percent of respondents to an MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE 11 poll who described high inflation as a “minor stress” on his household. 

One-third of the 800 registered voters polled regard recent levels of inflation as a “major” financial hardship. The rest said they haven’t felt stressed by the cost pressures.

The latest federal report on inflation showed that people were paying about 8.3 percent more for goods in August 2022 than they were the year before. Housing costs and food prices were up even more, although gasoline costs have been falling recently.

Ride-share driver Ojulu Kwot of St. Paul Park, a father of two, said inflation has taken a significant toll on his household budget. Gas to fill his tank, which is essential in his line of work, is still expensive to him even as it recedes from summer peaks.

His trips to the grocery store are gobbling up more money, too. Kwot, 45, said he’s scaling back what he buys — meat is a luxury — and he seems to be walking away with less in return due to the higher prices and smaller packaging.

“When I go to the store, all of my money I’m going to spend. It looks like I work for $5 an hour, he said. “I'm not going to be able to survive that.”

Persistently high inflation isn’t hitting every household in the same way.

Sharon Powell wasn’t part of the poll but she pays close attention to inflation in her work with the Family Resiliency Program through the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

“Inflation goes up the same amount for everybody, regardless of how much money you make,” she said. “So if you have less money to begin with, the rise in prices of things it’s going to just influence your life way more. You have less money to spend because proportionately it's a larger amount of your spending power that's gone.”

The squeeze can be influenced by where people live as well. Those in greater Minnesota tend to drive further to work, school or other places. They have fewer transit options. And they might have less choice in where they pick up essentials, making them more at the mercy of what one or two retailers charge.

Packed grocery bags sit on a table.
Bags of groceries are prepared at a resource drive at Brooklyn Center High School.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

“You have to pay more to get to the grocery store, so that's a larger expense. And then when you get to the grocery store, all of the prices of pretty much everything have gone up quite a bit,” Powell said. “So you pay more to get there and you pay more for what you are buying from there. And then you pay more to get home.”

The poll results indicate that people living beyond the metro area more often described inflation as a major financial problem for their household.

Anita Gibson, a retired teacher who lives in Richfield, told the Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy survey team that inflation is a minor stress for her. In a follow-up interview with an MPR News reporter, Gibson said she no longer drives that much and her main, non-fixed expense is food.

“I see more bare shelves,” she said. “I always buy fruit and I have to kind of monitor that. I noticed prices go up in the things that I usually buy. But it's not enough to make me totally stop. It just depends.”

Inflation is a driving issue in this year’s campaign, with Republican candidates blaming Democratic policies for making matters worse. Democrats respond that inflation is a product of supply-chain bottlenecks and surging consumer demand coming out of the pandemic.

The poll conducted Sept. 12-14 found a fair amount of pessimism about where inflation is heading, with 47 percent bracing for it to get worse over the next year, about 28 percent expecting more of the same and only 24 percent predicting it will improve.

There is a distinct difference in inflation attitudes among voters polled who identify with a political party. Republicans were far more likely to say inflation is creating a major financial stress and to hold a view that it will worsen. DFLers mostly cast it as a minor stress and were apt to say the situation will get better.

University of Minnesota professor Christopher Federico, a scholar of political science and psychology, said it’s an example of what researchers call “partisan-motivated reasoning.”

“So all other things being equal, people are motivated to see the economy as being in better shape when their party is in control and in worse shape when the other party's in control,” he said.

Federico added: “We see the way we see the world in a way that reflects well on our own party, and one result of that is that people will minimize bad economic conditions when they exist and perhaps exaggerate them when they don't exist.”

For additional findings from the September MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll, including notes about methodology and sample characteristics, visit the APM Research Lab methodology page here.