After Catherine Hembrecht pays for basic necessities like food, shelter and utilities, she usually has about $2 left to her disposal until her next Social Security check rolls in. During a good month, she might have a $9 surplus.
Hembrecht, 70, lives alone in her tiny rented Mishawaka, Indiana, home, where she is recovering from a recent leg amputation and learning to navigate daily activities from a wheelchair.
Lately, she's had a hankering for a small pie from Pizza Hut. But she can't afford to order one. Still, she doesn't complain.
"I really don't want anyone to feel sorry for me because I feel there are people out there who are worse off than I am," Hembrecht told me last week. "There are people living on the street, and we owe those guys and girls so much.
The government is ignoring them. I have a roof over my head. I've got food. I've got clothes. I'm doing OK. Sometimes at the middle of the month I might have one or two dollars, but it's like, OK, I can do without things, too, because other people have to. So I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me."
But there's plenty of empathy from me to go around, particularly for those Americans trying to survive the current clutches of poverty.
Hembrecht is right; there are people worse off than her. But as inflation rises, so does the avalanche of folks who are struggling to make ends meet. Some are running out of money or, if they have the credit-worthy means, financing necessities on their credit cards.
Inflation, which disproportionately hurts the poor, spikes the cost of everyday goods and services such as food, clothing and energy. Americans are experiencing the highest inflation rate in a generation, forcing many – those who were already living paycheck to paycheck – to cut back on personal spending.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned Friday that the central bank is committed to controlling inflation through aggressive interest rate hikes, adding that "the burdens of high inflation fall heaviest on those who are least able to bear them."
"Restoring price stability will take some time and requires using our tools forcefully to bring demand and supply into better balance," Powell said in a Friday speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. "While higher interest rates, slower growth and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses."
"These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation," Powell added.
My fear is that manufacturers and suppliers, feeling the pain of increased costs, will continue to pass on those costs – and more – to consumers. It's corporate price-gouging at its finest; ask anyone who has had to put gas in a car in the past six months.
Like many low-income Americans, Hembrecht doesn't have a financial cushion. She retired in 2019 on disability from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, where she ran a coffee cart at DeBartolo Hall. The constant blood clots in her leg required frequent bypass procedures, left her unable to stand and forced her to miss days at work.
Hembrecht's University of Notre Dame pension is $46 per month; her Social Security benefits are $1,161. Hembrecht's rent, at $640, eats up more than half of her monthly income. Her electric bill averages $125.
More than 69million Americans receive Social Security benefits; the average check is $1,542 a month – that's less than $20,000 a year. And though Social Security benefits increased 5.9% this year, the gains didn't keep pace with inflation.
Hembrecht hopes for better days and more affordable necessities. But she refuses to have a pity party about her fixed, fleeting income.
"Times are hard – you just have to go with the flow," she said.