Across broad swaths of the South, Southwest and the upper Great Plains, the combination of low incomes, high gas prices and heavy dependence on pickup trucks and vans is putting an even tighter squeeze on family budgets.
Here in the Mississippi Delta, some farm workers are borrowing money from their bosses so they can fill their tanks and get to work. Some are switching jobs for shorter commutes.
People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel. Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gas money.
The disparity between rural America and the rest of the country is a matter of simple home economics. Nationwide, Americans are now spending about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent.
As a result, gasoline expenses are rivaling what families spend on food and housing.
“This crisis really impacts those who are at the economic margins of society, mostly in the rural areas and particularly parts of the Southeast,” said Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at the Oil Price Information Service, a fuel analysis firm. “These are people who have to decide between food and transportation.”
A survey by Mr. Rozell’s firm late last month found that the gasoline crisis is taking the highest toll, as a percentage of income, on people in rural areas of the South, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota.
With the exception of rural Maine, the Northeast appears least affected by gasoline prices because people there make more money and drive shorter distances, or they take a bus or train to work.
But across Mississippi and the rural South, little public transit is available and people have no choice but to drive to work. Since jobs are scarce, commutes are frequently 20 miles or more. Many of the vehicles on the roads here are old rundown trucks, some getting 10 or fewer miles to the gallon.
The survey showed that of the 13 counties where people spent 13 percent or more of their family income on gasoline, 5 were located in Mississippi, 4 were in Alabama, 3 were in Kentucky and 1 was in West Virginia.
There it is in black and white. The areas of the country where people are spending over 10% of their income today on gasoline are smack dab in the middle of the most reliable Republican-voting states. You do have to wonder why they can't see it, but regardless we obviously have our job to do. We need to understand why they continue to shoot themselves in the foot and figure out a way to make them quit. It won't be easy trying to convince these folks to change the way they've always voted. It will be very difficult and maybe even impossible to convince all of them that the Democrats aren't going to take away their Bibles and put gays in every Boy Scout troop but it is a job that needs to be done. We have to do our very best to instill in them the reality that their future under John McCain is going to be far worse than it is now and far worse than anything they can imagine with Barack Obama and the Democrats in charge.