'It's making life more difficult overall': Skyrocketing Inflation is hurting Americans daily

With the rate of inflation at a 40-year high, Americans are feeling the pain at grocery stores and gas pumps.

Inflation is skyrocketing in the United States, driving up the cost of everything from food to used cars at the fastest rate in more than 40 years. The consumer price index increased by 8.5% annually, the fastest pace since December 1981, the Labor Department said Tuesday.

Walter D. Greason, professor and chair of the Department of History at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, said Russia's war against Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions put in place have disrupted global energy markets and resulted in high prices for consumers.

The economic historian said investments in transportation infrastructure, especially mass transit projects, can reduce the United States' susceptibility to fluctuations in energy costs in the future.

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At a grocery store in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2022. Inflation hit a fresh 40-year high as continuing surges in gasoline, food and rent costs more than offset moderating prices for used cars.

Professor Greason's conversation with USA TODAY's Editorial Board member Austin Bogues has been edited for clarity:

What is driving the cost increases we are experiencing? 

So this is one of the more difficult topics I try to get people to understand because the world economy is so complex over the last 40 years and really gets more difficult to understand by the day and by the week. In the last six to eight weeks, the escalation of energy prices has driven the way industrialized markets and the top 20 economies in the world have had to increase prices to consumers, to compensate for delays in the supply chain.

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To accelerate and expand the supply chain requires access to natural gas and access to processed petroleum. And so with the energy companies not meeting the demand and the difficulty of getting ahold of the energy supplies that we need to make the global economy run, then that's going to lead to increasing prices across all sectors. 

How are soaring gas prices affecting consumers, especially in communities of color?

So folks who are working on an hourly wage – disproportionately African Americans, indigenous populations and in immigrant households – they're all feeling the pinch when you're going to the gas station. And every week it seems to go up at least a dime, sometimes 25 cents. That piece is then cutting into the ability to pay rent. It's cutting into the ability to save and to be able to consider purchasing your own home. It's making life more difficult overall.

Walter Greason

What's getting more expensive at the grocery store? 

Meat and processed meat, you know, is going through the roof. It's very expensive as a unit within the grocery system. And so if you're talking particularly about beef or pork or to a lesser extent chicken, these things are all energy-intensive to produce and to distribute.

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What can be done to alleviate the burdens of energy costs? What does the American public need to understand? 

If we had one core demand to look for nationwide, it's for cheaper transportation infrastructure, so that it's cheaper for folks to use mass transit across the country. Particularly for working and middle-income families, if there's a local bus system that you can expand or a light rail system that you can expand, even bicycle lanes that provide for more safety and shorter commutes, those things that will reduce energy consumption on a daily basis would make an enormous difference.

Commentary editor Austin Bogues is a member of USA TODAY's Editorial Board. Follow him on Twitter: @AustinBogues