Yes, the rent is too damn high, but so are gas prices. Americans will likely spend more than $490 billion on gas in 2011, up from $391 billion in 2010. That’s an extra $100 billion and a 25 percent increase in just one year. The average U.S. price for a gallon of premium right now is $3.69, and if you think that's affordable, you must be a one percenter. Despite whatever reassuring words you may have seen about prices leveling off or declining, the fuel bill burden is sending ripples of gas pain through the American middle class. And these are working people we’re talking about.

High gas prices have led to a 1.8 percent decline in oil consumption this year, part of a vicious cycle. Gas prices go up as the economy gets better, and people go back to work — putting commuting time on their cars. As the recession deepens, they cut back on driving — and prices go down. So it’s working people who are hit the hardest, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that households spend more on transportation (including car payments and expenses) than they do for health care and taxes. So why are politicians so disproportionately worried about taxes?

The New America Foundation has done a really good job of documenting the pain at the pumps with a series called “The Energy Trap” that is online here. There are statistics galore — “Our gas tanks basically wiped out the entire middle-class tax break that was supposed to stimulate the economy and create jobs” — but the really affecting part is the personal stories.

Darren Flenoy, a security guard in the San Francisco Bay Area, had a decent job that enabled him to buy an SUV and, in 2006, a home in the far suburbs. But Darren lost his job and is making do with two part-time positions. And he’s driving more — and spending half his salary simply getting to work. Here, he tells his story on video:

That’s one story. Megan from Iowa tells this one:

“I think about gas every day. I work 30 hours a week and am a student also. I commute 120 miles a day to school and there are no buses or carpool arrangements. When I started commuting, my work hours easily covered my gasoline and tuition. When gas prices started rising above my budget, I started putting them on the credit card. By January of 2011, my gas bills and basic expenses were higher than my income. This is sad: Now I'm paying interest on the gas of 19 percent.”

Here’s Jeff from Maine:

“Everybody drives here. I got my working license when I was 15. We drive 18 miles just to go to the grocery store. The locals pay through the nose for our community, our heritage, and our families to exist here. There are no jobs in the town where I live. I’m an EMT and I have two jobs. One is full-time and the other is part time. My wife works full-time. Last month gas, car payments and insurance cost us $760, which is just about exactly what I make at the part-time job. When gas prices rise we can’t cut back on the gas so we cut out food. We’ve already cut entertainment. We want a family but we don’t have insurance. The future is scary. We’ve got decisions to make about where we’re going. We’re happy now but then there’s the reality.”

Tammy from New Hampshire:

“I was living 55 miles from work. I had a big car, two kids in school, dogs. I bought the SUV after my credit took a dive with a messy divorce. The car was used but I paid $300 a month for seven years. So I paid more than $25,000 for a car that was originally priced at $9,000. By the time it was paid off, it was old and I was paying $300 a month for repairs and $125 a week for gasoline.

“It was too much. I worked two to four other jobs to make ends meet. My son stopped playing sports. Mac and cheese was our friend. I stopped taking my asthma meds to save money and ended up in the ER. One day it broke down on the way to work. I was in tears. I was afraid I’d be in the same rut forever.”

And Val from Georgia:

“I burn a lot of gas just sitting in traffic. It’s crazy of course. Sometimes I drive further to avoid the traffic. I live 34 miles from work. We can’t afford to live inside the Perimeter. But sometimes Atlanta traffic makes that a two-hour drive.

“I’m surprised I spend $6,000 on my commute. I could do a lot with that money. If you really think about how much we’re spending on my commute, it’s kind of ridiculous. We could have kept my daughter in private school. Or I could save for retirement. I’m spending so much on gas — instead of school or even going out to dinner — and I’m not putting money into the economy. That’s sad. I don’t think about the future. I don’t feel like I have a choice. It worries me. We’ll have to cut back here and there to afford gas if prices go higher.”

If you want to go into detail on this, here’s a link to the full report, and a video of the press conference announcing the study:

The bottom line is unless Congress is taking effective steps to relieve America’s foreign oil dependence — and, believe me, it isn’t — then voters are richly justified in their record low opinion of that elected body.

MNN homepage photo: Shutterstock

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Gas prices are just too damned high
Americans will pay an extra $100 billion for gas in 2011, and it's hitting the working middle class right where it hurts.