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In an Unequal Economy, the Poor Face Inflation Now and Job Loss Later

The lease lasts only a year, however, and Ms. Clarke is worried about finding somewhere to live if it isn’t renewed. Even now, she is barely making ends meet: She lost her car keys recently and had to spend nearly $500 replacing them, wiping out nearly all her small rainy-day fund and leaving her one crisis away from financial disaster.

“When you don’t have money, you’re on a fixed income, you’re constantly thinking, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t have bought that,’” she said. “There’s no cushion. There really never was.”

More financially secure families also face headwinds, of course, which could eventually prompt them to slow down spending. The cash savings they built up during the pandemic won’t last forever, and rising prices could prompt many households to pull back their spending.

And swooning stock markets could prompt richer families, who tend to have more money invested, to spend less than they otherwise would. Some economists think that the people in this demographic have mostly kept spending recently — despite their falling economic confidence — because they are eager to take vacations that they had put off earlier in the pandemic.

“Where I’m budgeting, it’s to make room for travel,” said Mr. Trevino of Los Angeles. “I feel like I’ve missed out on that a little bit.”

Economists have speculated that richer consumers’ resilience could fade as autumn approaches and they take stock of their finances amid a slowing economy. But for now, the reality that America’s wealthier consumers have yet to sharply pull back in the face of rising prices may be setting up a tough road ahead for the nation’s poorer ones.

“We really, in a way, haven’t noticed the inflation very much,” Mr. Schoenfeld said. “This economy is very unfair.”

Jason Karaian contributed reporting.

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