Updated Jan 13, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Axios Vibes

A $126 grocery tab that explains the vibes paradox

an illustration of colorful rectangles containing graphics of upward arrows, shopping baskets, price tags, angry faces, grimacing faces, and sad faces

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

Americans are furious about high inflation, according to the Axios Vibes survey by The Harris Poll. Economists say that high inflation has mostly been vanquished. Both are correct.

Why it matters: If you look at the level of prices, they are way up since 2020. If you look at the rate at which prices are changing, it has returned to fairly normal levels. This intuition is crucial to understanding this confusing moment for inflation trends and public opinion around them.

Axios Vibe Check: How Americans feel about their grocery tab: 😡 😬 😔

  • What the data show: It's complicated.

By the numbers: About 72% of respondents said that groceries are where they feel most affected by inflation.

  • 59% feel some sort of negative reaction when shopping for groceries: angry, anxious or resigned — with anger the most common of those.
  • The survey's findings were based on a nationally representative sample of 2,120 U.S. adults conducted online between Dec. 15-17, 2023. (More on the methodology.)

Presenting three different cuts of the same underlying grocery price data tells the story.

Chart #1: Suppose, in December of 2019, you had a weekly grocery budget of $100. At the end of 2020 your weekly grocery bill would have risen to $103.97, based on Axios' analysis of government data. Not ideal, but fairly manageable.

  • But over the course of 2021, those prices really took off, to $110.78 that December. Then they kept soaring in the months that followed, bringing your grocery bill to $123.88 at the end of 2022.
  • In 2023, the price of "food at home" (as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls it) kept rising, so that weekly bill was $125.51 last month.
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Between the lines: Is it any wonder people are angry or anxious about that run-up in prices?

  • Not at all. After all, the price of food has gone up by more than than a quarter in a relatively short time.
  • Everybody has to eat. So if your income hasn't risen commensurately, the rise in grocery prices made you poorer in that span.

Chart #2: Economists more commonly quote inflation not as a level of prices, but as a rate of change over time. It's particularly common to look at price changes over the last year.

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

By this measure, grocery inflation peaked in August 2022, at 13.5% — a modern high.

  • But that was nearly a year and a half ago! Over the last 12 months, grocery prices have risen only 1.3%, which isn't bad at all.
  • The problem for grocery buyers is that 1.3% came on top of the earlier runup!

Chart #3: The year-over-year numbers above can be misleading in their own way. They are shaped by what happened over the course of the entire last 12 months rather than the most recent trend. They may not reflect what's going on right now.

  • To know where prices are going, not just where they've been, it helps to look at price changes over an even shorter time period.
  • For example, you can look at the change in prices over the last three months and extrapolate what kind of annual inflation rate that would translate to if it continued for a full year .
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

This approach reveals that grocery prices were actually falling outright for a few months this past spring — but that the price drops were mild and short-lived. Since then, food inflation has settled in at a steady, but reasonably low rate.

  • Over the final months of 2023, grocery inflation was running at a 2.1% annual rate.
  • These don't point to the kind of freefall implied by the year-over-year numbers — and definitely not toward grocery prices falling in a sustained way.

The intrigue: It would be great to see grocery prices dive back toward their pre-2020 levels — but that would require the rate of change to turn sharply negative, which they look unlikely to do.

  • Moreover, when prices do fall broadly in an economy — not just for groceries but for everything — it tends to coincide with other not-so-pleasant conditions, including recession, troubles sustaining debt payments, and flat or falling wages.
  • That's why, even following a period of high inflation like we've just experienced, the Federal Reserve and other policymakers aim to keep prices rising slowly, not engineer an outright collapse of prices.

The bottom line: According to the Axios Vibes poll, Americans' frustration with their rising grocery bills underpins their negative views about the economy — an economy that the professionals say is doing pretty well. The data explain why this paradox isn't such a paradox after all.

Go deeper: Axios Vibes: America's unhappiest people

Go deeper