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High Gas Prices Hit Rural Poor Hardest

Gasoline prices across the globe have dropped over the course of the last two months - from what were record highs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Still, the price of gasoline is much higher today than it was two and a half years ago, before the war in Iraq began. And while gas prices are a concern for everyone, they are a particular concern for America's rural poor.

Christopher Hickman is a mechanic in rural, upstate New York. He lives about 25 kilometers from the nearest grocery store, 35 kilometers from his place of work, and 20 kilometers from his ex-wife, with whom he shares custody of his three children.

He estimates he drives about 600 kilometers a week, going to and from the places he needs to visit, and that requires a lot of gas. "The gas prices aren't the greatest," he says, filling up the tank in his truck. "I mean, I go through probably between $60 and $80 a week in my truck. And that's quite a lot of money."

In fact, it is about 30% more money than what it cost Mr. Hickman to do the same amount of driving in March of 2003. Yet, his wages have gone up just 7% since that time, and at around $28,000 a year, those wages are barely enough to keep him and his family above the poverty line.

A recent report released by the Consumer Federation of America found that poor Americans are spending a much greater portion of their income on gas than their middle and upper-income counterparts. People earning less than $15,000 a year, for example, will spend about 10% of their income on gas in 2005, while those earning $80,000 or more will spend just 2%.

Some of this is because a liter of gasoline costs the same amount, regardless of how much money you have to spend. But some of it is also due to the fact that many poor Americans -- more than 20% of them - live in rural areas.

"My wife and I just moved from Washington, DC, back to rural Texas, and I'm amazed at how much time I spend behind the steering wheel," says Tom Rowley, a fellow at the Rural Poverty Research Institute. According to Mr. Rowley, Americans in rural areas earn about 25% less than those in cities. The rural poor are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in gas prices, because they have to travel great distances, and also because they don't have the public transportation options that poor people in urban areas have.

It is a reality that Tom Rowley says politicians - many of whom live in big cities - don't always understand. "I think the farther up the chain you go in political representation, the more disconnected people become from rural realities," he says. "If you're talking about county commissioners, yes, they understand it. If you're talking about state legislators -- a little less, but still somewhat. When you get to Washington, D.C., I think a lot of that gets forgotten, frankly."

And that is unfortunate, according to Tom Rowley, since it is the politicians in Washington who are in the best position to do something about gas prices.

One reality that Christopher Hickman is facing in upstate New York is that he is going to have to make some sacrifices this upcoming holiday season. "You know, we thought about taking the kids down to Virginia on a vacation for Thanksgiving, and now with gas prices being the way they are, it's going to cut into our finances for going down there," he says. "So we've had to cut back."

The Hickmans will probably be staying home this Thanksgiving. Christopher Hickman says it is either that, or cut back on Christmas, which he would rather not do.