Holli Thomas, 54, of Keizer, has been selling clothing and furniture to pay rising gas costs to get to her cancer treatments. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Holli Thomas’ breast cancer is responding to the drug trial she’s enrolled in.

But the 54-year-old Keizer resident has to drive to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for her treatment. With gas prices over $5 per gallon, she’s now having to sell clothes and furniture to afford the trips.

“It’s a budgeting nightmare,” she said.

She’s among area residents struggling with an annual inflation rate over 8%, with the prices of staples like meat and fuel straining household budgets, especially for low-wage earners and those on fixed incomes.

Despite record wage gains over the past year, workers across Oregon are seeing their ability to buy needed items eroded by inflation, said Gail Krumenauer, the state’s employment economist.

“For the most part, wage increases aren’t keeping up with inflation. Your checkbook is getting hit harder every month,” Krumenauer said.

Thomas was diagnosed in 2017 with triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease. With daily appointments at Salem Health’s oncology department and short-term memory loss from a sepsis infection caused by treatment, she can’t work and relies on $1,532 per month in Social Security disability payments.

Her daughter is her full-time caregiver, paid by the state, and takes home about $1,800 per month. They live with Thomas’ 12-year-old granddaughter in a home that rents for $1,175 per month.

Thomas said it now costs about $57 to fill the tank of her Buick Encore, up from $37 before gas prices skyrocketed. As a caregiver, her daughter can be reimbursed up to 30 miles monthly for driving to medical appointments - but just two of the nearly-daily 16-mile roundtrips to Salem Health chew up that money.

To get by, Thomas said her family has stopped stocking up on groceries and is now just buying enough to cook a meal or two at a time. Fresh vegetables and meat have become luxuries, so they’ve turned to other protein sources like eggs, though avian flu is now causing the cost of eggs to rise as well.

“Hamburger is so ridiculously expensive,” Thomas said.

Local Fred Meyer and Safeway stores are charging about $5.99 per pound for ground beef this week, while Roth's has a $3.99 per pound sale through Tuesday.

They’ve also taken to selling her clothes from her previous career as a business executive, and some furniture left over from when she and her daughter moved in together.

“We rob Peter to pay Paul in order to survive,” she said.

Salem residents in emails and social media posts responding to a question about how inflation has impacted them described being shocked by their recent food receipts – $5 for a bag of Doritos, $6 for a hot dog, $7 for a box of Cheerios. One reader noted Costco had raised the price on a package of its muffins to $8.99, one of several staple items the warehouse retailer recently increased by a dollar.

Some said they’d made few changes to their lives aside from cutting back on car trips. Others described more careful grocery budgeting, efforts to cut back on meat, and fears that rising costs could push them into homelessness.

“At this rate it’s inevitable,” one person wrote, saying their $16 hourly job in manufacturing can’t keep pace with rent and living costs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in its May forecast predicted the price of food eaten at home to increase between 7 and 8% in 2022, with restaurant prices rising similarly.

The agency predicted that in 2022, compared to last year, pork prices will increase between 6-7% and other meat prices between 9-10%. Meat and gas companies are among those posting record profits in 2022, prompting some to call the higher prices a form of price-gouging.

Average fuel costs in Salem are up at least 60 cents from a month ago for all types of gas, according to AAA data. Salem residents on average paid about $5.37 for a gallon of regular gas as of Tuesday, up from $4.69 a month ago.

The average per-gallon cost for diesel Tuesday was about $5.94 in Salem, up from $5.49 a month ago.

Social service providers in the Salem area are seeing the strain too, with overlapping crises compounding problems for families already struggling to survive.

Melissa Baurer, who oversees community health, outreach and other social programs for Santiam Hospital, said their service integration team has seen more requests for gas cards to help families get to and from appointments and to buy groceries.

The team, which helps connect families in the Santiam area to social services, has recently gotten requests through Marion County’s Woman, Infants and Children program, a federal voucher program that allows mothers with young children to buy staple foods and formula.

Baurer said the WIC office would call families to let them know formula was in stock at a local grocery store, only to find the family couldn’t make the trip to buy it.

“They were finding they couldn’t afford the gas to get to that store because the stores were not in their normal shopping area,” she said.

It’s one of the ways rising costs have hit rural residents especially hard.

More people are also requesting deliveries from local food banks because they can’t afford gas to pick up food, she said, and skipping doctor’s appointments because of the travel distance or because they can’t afford co-pays.

“They’re missing primary care appointments or they’re postponing their surgeries,” Baurer said.

So far this year, Santiam’s social workers have fielded 417 requests for help with basic items like food, utilities, rent and gas. Wildfire survivors, many of whom are living in RVs and need help with propane, are especially impacted, Baurer said.

Marion Polk Food Share saw a rise people seeking help with food in April, with 13,513 visits to regional food pantries. That's the highest number they've seen since December 2020, said Sam Tenney, the nonprofit's spokesman.

State economists in their most recent forecast, released May 18, predicted inflation will begin to slow.

Josh Lehner, a state economist, said rising prices are largely due to disruptions in the economy caused by the war in Ukraine and supply chain issues and lockdowns in China.

“At least half of the surge in inflation has to do with those, so if we can fix those issues or at least stop having them get worse,” prices should stop rising, he said.

He said as of now, the economy doesn’t appear to be headed toward recession. He’s seen some publicly-traded companies in their first quarter earnings reports note consumers are shifting their spending away from discretionary items toward basics, but so far they aren’t cutting back on spending. Federal economic data, which usually lags, isn’t yet showing those shifts, he said.

For now, he said, “it just looks like the inflation is a huge pain to all consumers, to all Oregonians,” he said.

Thomas said she doesn’t see how people like her can survive in the current economy.

“They’re cutting the throats of the middle class. We’re all going to be poor or billionaires and I don’t see me jumping up to the billionaire,” Thomas said.

To help: Santiam's Service Integration Team needs additional volunteers willing to help deliver food or drive people to appointments. Those interested can email [email protected]. The team also accepts donations and gas cards in person at 11758 Sublimity Rd, Sublimity, on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by mail to 1401 N. 10th Ave., Stayton, ATTN: Santiam Service Integration.

Ardeshir Tabrizian contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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