Jack Andrews and his wife no longer enjoy date night, their once-a-month outing to the movies and a steak dinner at Logans Roadhouse in Augusta, Ga.
In New Yorks Harlem, Eddie Phillips life insurance payment will have to wait a few more weeks. And Jessica Price is buying cheaper food near her home in Orlando, Fla., even though she worries it may not be as healthy.
There are growing signs that the broader economy is suffering, too. Sales at chain stores weakened in January. And two surveys released last week suggested that consumer confidence was eroding, especially among lower-income Americans.
While these data points are preliminary more detailed statistics on retail sales and other trends will not be available until later this month at street level, the pain from the expiration of a 2 percentage point break in Social Security taxes in 2011 and 2012 is plain to see.
You got to stretch what you got, said Phillips, 51, a front-desk clerk and maintenance man for a nonprofit housing group who earned $22,000 last year. That little $20 or $30 affects you, especially if youre just making enough money to stay above water. So he has taken to juggling bills, skipping a payment on one this month and another next month.
Im playing catch-up each month, he said. You go to the supermarket and you cant spend what you used to.
Jack Andrews has it slightly better than Phillips. He earns a bit more than $40,000 a year manufacturing ceramics in a local factory, but because his wife, Cindy, is disabled, he is the sole breadwinner. Something had to give now that he is earning about $800 less a year, or $66 a month, and it was the couples monthly night out.
Its just gotten out of reach, Andrews said.
The tax break, which was pushed by the White House to stimulate spending in 2011 and extended in 2012, was always supposed to be temporary. But with pressure building in Washington to reduce the deficit and politicians fighting bitterly over whether to raise taxes on the very rich, the question of how the increase in Social Security taxes would affect the poorest workers did not seem to garner much debate on either side of the aisle.
I dont see any reason to consider supporting its extension, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in testimony last year. Even Nancy Pelosi, a reliable liberal who leads the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, was for letting it expire.
The higher rate applies to all earned income up to $113,700. For a household earning $100,000 a year, the 2 percentage point increase means an additional $2,000 a year in payroll deductions.
Economists estimate that the payroll tax increase will reduce disposable income by about $120 billion and shave half a percentage point from economic growth in the first quarter a significant blow given that the economy is expected to expand only 1 to 2 percent in the first half of 2013.
If you wanted to design a policy to squeeze the spending of lower- and middle-income households, raising the payroll tax is the way to do it, said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors. Its very regressive.
Retailing analysts and economists say high-end earners will largely be spared.
Monthly data for chain-store sales in January will not be released until Friday, but the weekly data already available for last month showed a steady deterioration in shopping.
There is something going on, said Chris Christopher Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight. The payroll tax seems to be cutting into things.
That pattern was apparent in a Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment released last Friday, according to Richard Curtin, who directs consumer surveys at the university.
When asked how their financial situation had changed in January, 32 percent of people with incomes below $75,000 said their pay had dropped, compared with 13 percent who said it had increased. By contrast, 38 percent of people earning more than $75,000 said their wages had gone up last month, and 23 percent said they had gone down.
We rarely see such divergent trends, Curtin said. Mostly it was the payroll tax hurting the lower incomes, while higher-income folks had a boost from things like dividends.