In which ways does inflation harm the poor?

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That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

One major factor: The poor is the socioeconomic group that finds it hardest to purchase a home, and real estate seems to be one of the best inflation hedges. U.S. real estate prices have been on a tear for some time, including through the recent inflationary period…

The poor also save less, including as a share of their incomes, because they have to spend a relatively large percentage of their incomes on necessities. That means they have smaller buffers against many kinds of changes and uncertainties, including those of inflation.

Some researchers have referred to inflation as a “regressive consumption tax,” because cash balances are so often the pathway to consumption for poorer income groups. Poorer individuals also are less likely to have cash management accounts and other asset holdings that might partially insulate them from the losses of inflation.


Probably the strongest argument in favor of the notion that the poor are less affected by inflation is that inflation can, under some circumstances, lower the real value of debt. If prices go up 7%, and your income goes up 7%, all of a sudden your debts — which typically are fixed in nominal value — are worth 7% less.

This mechanism is potent, but it assumes that real wages keep pace with inflation. Right now real wages are falling, and with higher inflation may continue to do so. Furthermore, many poor people roll over their debts for longer periods of time. Repaying those debts will eventually be cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms, but not anytime soon.

I’ve been focusing on the U.S., but elsewhere in the world the general correlation is that high inflation and high income inequality go together. Correlation is not causation, but those are not numbers helpful to anyone who wishes to argue that inflation is a path to greater income equality. Have very high levels of inflation done much for the poor in Venezuela and Zimbabwe?  And if you ask which group would benefit from an improvement in living standards prompted by higher rates of investment, as might follow from a period of stability — it is the poor, not the wealthy.

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