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If inflation is up 3.9 percent, why does it feel worse?

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That may explain why 47 percent of adults in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll cited inflation as the biggest economic concern. None of the other concerns, from mortgages to unemployment, scored even half that high.

CPI reliable – but it's an average

"The CPI is a fine, reliable price index as far as it goes," says Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Yet "it absolutely doesn't reflect the true set of costs that everybody faces."

A person who operates his own trucking business, for example, devotes an outsized slice of income to fuel.

"Truckers are experiencing unprecedented operating cost increases," Todd Spencer, head of a group representing those truckers, told a May 6 hearing in Congress. "[They] are being forced to make tough decisions in the name of saving their businesses and providing for their families."

For other Americans, like Leah Yaroslaski, who works as a food-industry training consultant in Stockton, Calif., the CPI is that far from reality. But she figures that higher energy costs are making it harder for employers to raise salaries.

"If [inflation] goes up any more, we're in trouble," she says.

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