How Rising Gas Prices Are Eroding the American Dream

Jeff Grant is an ER technician and a paramedic. He lives in Waldoboro, Maine. He works two jobs, and his wife works one. Last month between them they spent $760 on gasoline, car payments (for two modestly used cars), and car insurance. This month the 50-cent increase in the cost of fuel means they'll spend about $828 for transportation. That means that Jeff is working one job just so he and his wife can get to their other two. This is astonishing, but there is nothing statistically unusual about his situation--and its implications for the American Dream (for lack of a better word) are stark and depressing.


I'll get back to Jeff's story in a moment, but the New York Times ran an article saying that American drivers are adapting faster to today's gas prices than they did in 2008. That's probably true--we'd be complete idiots to not have learned some lessons from $4/gallon gasoline--but it runs the risk of being happy talk that masks the true problem that we're facing.

When gas prices go up, Jeff and his wife don't cut back on gas, but spend less on food. They've already cut out most paid entertainment.
Most Americans have no transportation options other than owning a car and buying gasoline, and when prices are high, this burden imperils their financial stability and dampens the entire U.S. economy. If gas prices stay at $3.50 for the month of March, U.S. drivers will spend $41 billion on gasoline--about twice what they spent in March of 2009. The economic drain of high gas prices is an entire stimulus program--but running in reverse. Some decent policies to increase transit choice and reduce oil use would give the U.S. economy some breathing room, and let people like Jeff work hard and get ahead, instead of falling further behind. 

I met Jeff at a locally famous diner called Moody's, which serves grapenut pudding, blueberry pie, and fried clams, among other things. Jeff grew up in the next town over, "driving 18 miles just to go to the grocery store." Driving a car here is how you grow up, and Jeff got his work license at 15.   

"It's the locals who really pay through the nose for our community, our heritage, and our families to exist here," Jeff says. He explains that towns like Waldoboro have struggles between locals who want more jobs and retirees from outside who argue that growth is bad. The upshot is that Jeff commutes to work in Damariscotta, 15 miles each way, and Boothbay Harbor, 30 miles each way. He and his wife also go to Damariscotta and Rockland for all their groceries, clothes, and other shopping. In the summer, tourists arrive bringing dollars and traffic jams, which make everyone's commute longer.

You might wonder why Jeff and his wife don't move. Heritage is undoubtedly part of the reason--Jeff describes his hobbies as taking his skiff to the islands off the coast, mackerel fishing, and recreational lobstering. Towns in here are still distinct places.  Another issue, though, is housing prices. Jobs--and hospitals--are located in towns where housing prices are high, like Damariscotta and Boothbay. Miles Hospital, where Jeff works, half the workers commute more than ten miles a day. This phenomenon was actually tracked in an MIT study, which you can find cited on pages 47 and 48 of this PDF. (The researchers probably underestimated distances by not accounting for the region's notoriously roundabout roads.)

Lisa_Gasprices_3-10_inpostB.jpgWhile we tend to reflexively blame "sprawl" for the high cost of commuting in the U.S., housing values, income inequality, and local job development also play a role in the distance between home and work. When I asked, Jeff said he'd never considered taking public transit because he couldn't imagine it accommodating his 12-hour days at the ER or his erratic schedule.

Meanwhile, Jeff  can't get a different vehicle than his 2005 Chevy Silverado, which gets 17 miles per gallon, because he's still paying it off.  He goes back and forth on whether he could live without a truck--it would be hard to haul firewood and garbage, both part of the weekly routine. And he'd need to find another way to haul a boat. He concludes, "I'll never be able to afford a vehicle like that again." He and his wife make car payments of $300 a month, and pay another $100 for insurance. When gas prices go up, they don't cut back on gas, but spend less on food. They've already cut out most paid entertainment.

When I ask Jeff where he wants to be in five years, he loses his cheerful pragmatism. "The future is scary. We've got decisions to make about where we're going. We're happy now, but then there's the reality." He said he and his wife want a family, but they're trying to figure out how to afford health insurance to make that possible. Jeff worries that he can't be a good provider or a good spouse if he can't provide insurance, which costs about $760 a month. (Similar to last month's transportation costs.)

He continued talking and said something that I didn't expect during an interview about gas prices, something that gives me a catch in my throat when I think of it.  "In my family, our jobs are something we do, but not who we are as individuals. Our priorities are first our relationship to God, second to family, and the job is number three. But it's hard to have those priorities because the jobs have to be number one right now." 

Too often, we associate the American Dream with materialism--two cars in every garage, or having more stuff than our parents--but Jeff's desire to choose who he is as an individual in the spiritual or community sense is more exactly the motivation of the founders of this country. Without giving it much thought, we have let these freedoms erode under the pressure of making a living, which now requires owning cars and buying fuel from regimes (like that of Libya) that more directly constrain their citizens' freedom.

Photo: Jeff Grant, by Lisa Margonelli
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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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