LAKEWOOD — “Look at that,” said Dora Poqui, nodding toward her television as it flashed a preview of the evening news. “Every time I see the news. $5.27 for gasoline. I know our pockets are going to be hurting this week.”

In fact, Poqui’s pockets hurt most weeks lately. Gone are the days when she and her husband thought they might save to buy a home. The pandemic has landed hard on them, and now they share an apartment in Lakewood with her mother, who was dozing in a reclining chair, and her granddaughter, who was holed up in one of the two bedrooms down the hall. Instead of a house, Poqui now saves for meat and cereal, for a family member’s funeral in Mexico and, as an in-home caregiver, for the cost of driving a car.

“A lot of these clients require transportation,” she said of her work. “That’s why they hire you because they need somebody to go do their essential work.”

Poqui guesses she spends close to $700 every month on her car. The payments alone exceed $400. There’s also insurance, regular maintenance, her license tabs. Then there’s the gasoline, the cost spiraling upward for months. The state, which contracts with her for her caregiver work, reimburses some of her expenses, but it’s a fraction of the reality, she said. The weight of it all is heavy enough that she finds herself choosing between renewing her tabs or servicing her brakes.  

“When do you make enough to say, ‘OK, I’m going to relax and not worry about this paycheck?’” she said.

For the Puget Sound area’s working class, who teeter on the edge of poverty, the cost of fuel and owning a car is another pixel in the larger portrait of how difficult living in the Seattle region has become. In February, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that nearly 600,000 people in Washington said it would be “very difficult” to afford basic household expenses. In August, that number was just under 400,000.

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A $60 tank of fuel might not loom largest in Poqui’s budget, but it salts the wounds already left by the cost of rent, groceries and utilities.

Like other “essential workers,” there are few opportunities for Poqui to reduce the cost of driving. Her most recent client lived in Tacoma, where Poqui cannot afford to live, forcing her into a 30-minute commute each way. Transit near her is limited and, besides, she sometimes needs to drive her clients to appointments or pick up medicine from the pharmacy. Working remotely is, of course, not an option.

So she looks elsewhere for cuts: eating meat twice a week instead of every day, adding more water to the soup, waiting on getting that new pair of shoes.

The cost of car ownership was surging even before the pandemic. The toll of financing a car jumped 24% in 2019, according to AAA, pushing the annual cost of owning a new car close to $10,000. As the pandemic scrambled the normal flow of the supply chain and processing chips grew scarce, the price of buying a used vehicle went into orbit. And then came the spike in gas prices, now the highest they’ve been since 2008 when adjusted for inflation.

It’s an expense many might not fully comprehend; one survey of 6,000 drivers in Germany found that car owners underestimate the cost of owning a vehicle by an average of 50%. Near Seattle, it’s a burden likely to be borne heaviest by those already priced out of the major cities.

“If you go around to some of these satellite cities, that is where you will very often find people who have scraped enough to afford and they’re enduring the commutes,” said Jacob Vigdor, a professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. His current research, due to be released soon, shows it’s people in the suburbs and exurbs who are struggling the most, despite the slightly lower cost of living.

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And so, as car ownership becomes more expensive, said Vigdor, “you’re taking the component of the workforce that was already the most economically squeezed and you’re squeezing them harder.”

Breaking points

In the past month, the price of gasoline in Washington has jumped 80 cents a gallon, to $4.74 on Friday, according to AAA. It’s a monthslong trend that accelerated with the onset of the war in Ukraine.

Maria Valera’s home on Aurora Avenue North is a one-bedroom apartment she shares with two of her four boys. ”I feel like Alice in Wonderland,” she said, quickly scanning her living space. “The apartment gets smaller as my kids get taller.”

It’s the only way she can afford to stay in Seattle; her two younger kids are both close to graduating from high school and she doesn’t want to force them to change school districts so late.

Valera works at Sea-Tac Airport, preparing meals for flights and airport lounges. Her shift begins at 3 a.m. “I wake up at 2,” she said. “I have to jump on the freeway at 2:30, no matter what, because it’s almost a half an hour.”

Even when gas was cheap, life in Seattle was a struggle for Valera, a widowed single mother. With a budget already whittled to a point, the difference of $20 a week in gasoline means she dilutes her laundry detergent and eats peanut butter and jelly so her kids can have larger portions of pasta.   

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“We don’t have no choice,” she said. “It feels like modern slavery.”

Inflation, which reached nearly 8% over the past 12 months, overall hurts low-income workers disproportionately. A Washington Post analysis found those in the bottom 20% of earners spend a significantly larger proportion of their pay on necessities like shelter, food and gasoline, and rising costs exacerbate that gap.

“The breaking point is going to be an individual thing,” said Vigdor. “There’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back. For some people, the gas prices might be that.”

Valera’s base pay works out to roughly $40,000 a year. She works enough overtime that she can push that to over $50,000, but her income is nevertheless near the bottom quarter of people living in Seattle. And yet she pays the same price at the pump for gas. She has few alternatives to driving; taking transit would mean getting out of bed at close to midnight.

The current transit system is not built for people like Valera, said Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which advocates for more alternatives to cars.

“We have forced people to live in a world where there are very few real or convenient options for anything other than a car,” said Hudson.

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Valera nearly hit a breaking point recently when her car broke down on the side of the road at 2:30 in the morning. She managed to catch an Uber to work, but had to take a $600 payday loan to replace the car’s alternator, plus $95 in interest.

“Sometimes, in a single moment, you just want to tap out,” she said, “and say, please, timeout. Timeout.”

Poqui is now in the process of acquiring a new client: her mother, who is in the early stages of dementia. Once the paperwork comes through, it could mean fewer miles on the road, fewer dollars toward the gas tank.

But she sees a deeper problem, picked open by the new focus on gas prices. Caregivers like herself are considered essential, but she only makes $19 an hour right now, and even that rate is only because she receives a pandemic-related, $2 an hour “hazard pay” bump. “There’s not going to be enough caregivers, because who wants to work at this rate?” she said. “You know Target is paying $24?”

“You can bet that there are people who aren’t able to make it to work because they can’t afford the gas to get there,” Hudson said, “and they don’t have another option.”

Vigdor points back to his work showing it’s people just outside of cities who live closest to the edge, more so than those within the cities. “They’re not necessarily planning on $5 a gallon gas, so the struggles that we see on the fringes of these metro areas, they’re going to get more severe,” he said.