The weather is all anyone can talk about these days—and for good reason. A “bomb cyclone” is on its way to tear up the East Coast, so it’s freezing outside. But for poor people who struggle to pay their energy bills, weather like this is more than a nuisance. It can be a life or death situation.
More and more often, Americans are getting their electricity cut off—even if it’s freezing outside. In a single year ending May 2016, Ohio utilities disconnected more than 314,000 residents from power, 84 percent more than 10 years ago. Pennsylvania saw 220,000 shutoffs in 2015. A disproportionate number of communities facing shutoffs are low-income and/or predominantly made up of people of color, according to a report the NAACP released earlier this year.
The reason for the shutoffs? Energy isn’t cheap, man. It’s an especially heavy burden for families who don’t make much money: A household with a median annual income of roughly $25,000 will spend more than 7 percent of its annual income on energy bills, whereas a household that makes a median annual income of $90,000 a year spends just 2 percent on energy costs, according to a 2016 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Black and Latino households allocate more of their income on energy than their white neighbors.
“There’s really no difference in how African-Americans, Latinos, and whites consume energy, but the real issue is in the efficient consumption of that energy,” Tony Reames, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who teaches a class on energy justice, told Earther.
Communities of color tend to live in less energy-efficient housing—which Reames attributes to housing segregation. Renters also have no say over whether their landlord decides to better insulate a building. An absentee landlord has little incentive to weatherize an apartment complex if the utility bill falls on another person’s lap.
“The pervasiveness of the old residential segregation policies that were in place and legal before are really having an impact on people today in the type of housing they can consume,” Reames continued, “so it’s just likely that Latinos and African Americans and other disadvantaged populations are consuming inefficient housing, which results in unaffordable energy.”
People will spend even more money as this record-breaking weather pushes northeastern power plants to the edge. Some parts of the country are running out of natural gas, forcing grid operators to turn to oil.
The struggle to pay for energy is not only compounded by weather but by politics: This year, federal assistance for families struggling to pay their utility bills is likely to cease. President Donald Trump has proposed to eliminate the Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in the 2018 budget.
This program has helped an estimated 7 million Americans pay their heating (and cooling) bills in recent years, which can be the difference between life or death in this cold. Trump did release some funding for LIHEAP in October, but it might not be enough for what this winter has in store.
Facing utility shutoffs can lead to mental health impacts like depression or anxiety, as a researcher at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found in 2016. Assistant Professor Diana Hernandez interviewed 72 low-income families in Boston and discovered that many parents felt stigmatized and afraid during periods of energy insecurity.
A universal right to uninterrupted service would help solve this issue, argues the NAACP. A utility provider might pin blame on the individual who failed to pay the heating bill, but energy justice advocates want to see utilities held accountable and for them to incorporate human rights into their business models. Enforcement from public utility commissions could help make this possible.
Reames wants to see utilities work more closely with the public so that residents have a say in how they’re being charged. Otherwise, people end up with no heat and look to dangerous makeshift methods to heat their homes, like ovens and kerosene heaters.
“It’s an invisible environmental injustice,” said Reames. “You can see the power plant polluting the community but not that 20 houses in this neighborhood are facing shutoffs.”