Like a plague that hits every economic class, race and age, soaring fuel prices are inflicting pain throughout the U.S. Nine in 10 people are expecting the ballooning costs to squeeze them financially over the next half-year, says an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll released Monday.
Nearly half think that hardship will be serious. To cope, most are driving less, easing off the air conditioning and heating at home and cutting corners elsewhere. Half are curtailing vacation plans; nearly as many are considering buying cars that burn less gas. U.S. auto companies are closing plants that make pickups and SUVs that people have stopped buying.
As the price of gasoline has spiraled upward, so, too, has the public's ire.
Two-thirds consider gas prices an extremely important issue, edging the economy and outpacing health care and Iraq as the country's most distressing problem. In November, when gas cost about $1 a gallon less than today, just under half rated it extremely important.
"Do you think there's an end in sight? I don't," the 33-year-old Crawford, a Dallas homemaker, said in an interview.
She said switching to bar soap from a favored lotion is one of many "little small luxuries" she has given up, along with fewer restaurant meals and new clothes. She also has talked with her husband, a flooring contractor, about finding a job involving less long-distance driving with his heavy van.
"It's depressing and it makes you nervous," she said.
The AP-Yahoo News poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks, has tracked the same 2,000 people since last fall to see how their views change during the presidential campaign. The latest survey shows how the price of gasoline has caught or eclipsed every other issue, not just as a political topic but as a problem in people's lives.
"You're saddened prices are going up, and you can't do the extra things you would have done," said Amy Pysarenko, 35, of San Antonio, whose concern about gas prices has grown since November. She says while her family has cut back on amusement park visits and saving for their children, "I feel fortunate because maybe someone else eats beans instead of hamburgers."
The 47 percent in the most recent survey who expect higher gas costs to cause serious hardship is about the same as in last year's poll, but an increase from the 30 percent who said so in an AP-Ipsos poll in June 2004. Then, regular gas averaged $1.97 a gallon nationally, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Lower-income people are bearing the brunt of it. As higher prices push grocery, pizza delivery and other costs upward, just over half of those without college degrees -- and about the same percentage of those earning less than $50,000 a year -- are expecting serious personal financial problems to result.
"We just don't do as much," said William Fisk, 39, a former dishwasher in Freeport, Maine. "We used to go out to have dinner, but we're cutting way back on that."
Yet significant numbers of the better-off are feeling pain, too. Four in 10 people in families earning $50,000 to $100,000 annually, and one in six earning more than that, expect serious financial hardships from rising gas costs, as do one in three college graduates.
Many lower-earning families are responding by easing their use of air conditioning and heating, trimming vacation plans and cutting other spending. But higher-income people are not far behind.
Two-thirds of those earning under $25,000 a year are cooling and heating their homes less, as are nearly six in 10 people earning more than $100,000. Just over four in 10 of the lowest earners are cutting vacation spending -- only slightly likelier than those earning at least six figures to do so.
Rich or poor, black or white, young or old, nearly everyone is looking to drive less: A nearly uniform seven in 10 say they are reducing driving. That compares with six in 10 who said so in an April 2005 AP-AOL survey.
Jacobs, a homemaker and mother of three in Baltimore, said gas costs forced her to turn down two summer trips -- a cousin's wedding in North Carolina and a vacation with her parents in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"My parents said, `Come down, spend a week with us,"' said Jacobs, 35. "But when you add on the expense of gas, it's just not worth it."
Ironically, Jacobs plans to begin taking lessons this week for her first driver's license. "Just as prices go through the roof," she said.
Four in 10 are considering buying vehicles that get better gas mileage than their current ones. That is about the same percentage who said so three years ago.
Some have already taken that step. English of Papillion, Neb., sold his 1998 Ford pickup, which got about 13 miles per gallon, for a more fuel-efficient convertible.
"It was a nice truck," said English, 43, an aircraft mechanic. "It didn't feel good" to get rid of it "and it still doesn't," he said.
Midwesterners are among the likeliest to think rising gas costs will cause them serious personal hardship. Southerners are among the more willing to reduce driving.
As a political issue in the presidential campaign, gas prices provide a slight edge to Democrat Barack Obama. More prefer him over Republican John McCain to handle the problem, 28 percent to 20 percent, while an additional 18 percent trust both equally.
There is a strong sense of powerlessness. One-third do not think either candidate can deal with the problem. That includes half of independents, one-third of Republicans and one-quarter of Democrats.
The AP-Yahoo News survey of 1,759 adults was conducted from June 13-23 and had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Included were interviews with 844 Democrats and 637 Republicans, for whom the margins of sampling error were plus or minus 3.4 points and 3.9 points, respectively.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.