Poll: 9 out of 10 say gas prices will hurt

Four-dollar gasoline has stolen a beach vacation from Julie Jacobs' family, “little small luxuries” like exotic bath washes from Angela Crawford and dinners out from folks all over the country. Phil English has had to sell his beloved but fuel-guzzling red pickup.

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.

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.