Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unpaid bills and energy shutoffs in many vulnerable US households. Indiana University researchers warn we need to act now to avoid yet another health emergency.
As the nation remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, a more insidious crisis is taking root as households are unable to pay their energy bills, risking serious health consequences and increasing debt, while federal and state governments fail to adequately protect vulnerable families.
Health impacts<p>As the energy insecure population grows in the U.S., the health consequences could be calamitous, not only for those who are disabled or require an electronic medical device but also for those who live in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12053-019-09820-z" target="_blank">poor housing conditions</a>.</p><p>Energy insecurity and deficient housing stock have been linked to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618301075?casa_token=L1azcPluHF8AAAAA:q7n3pr5-qiObzBGZUSXWCZo8R1tkuy3RdFbDgW8JouBtn8GKJkaT6fMJaUcttwKjEAZVDOxhwJg#bib0010" target="_blank">negative health outcomes</a>, including increased rates of asthma, respiratory infections, and mental health issues, especially in households with <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/125/5/e1115?download=true" target="_blank">children</a> and <a href="https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/ppi/cons-prot/2010-05-energy.pdf" target="_blank">senior citizens</a>. </p><p>Approximately 20 percent of survey respondents noted that their home was drafty or had poor insulation; 9 percent had holes in the floors and walls; and 7 percent did not have a working <a href="https://www.latimes.com/environment/newsletter/2020-05-28/climate-change-covid-19-heat-waves-boiling-point-newsletter-boiling-point" target="_blank">air conditioner</a>. An additional 12 percent responded that they had mold, which is associated with <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114807/" target="_blank">bronchitis</a>, upper respiratory tract symptoms, and <a href="https://news.brown.edu/articles/2007/08/depression-and-household-mold" target="_blank">higher rates of depression</a>.</p><p>The coming summer months, which are poised to be one of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/climate/summer-weather-prediction.html?smid=tw-share" target="_blank">hottest on record</a>, are another looming threat. If economic conditions do not improve, millions of Americans will be vulnerable. An estimated <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/pubs/extreme-heat-guidebook.pdf" target="_blank">65,000</a> people visit the emergency room each year due to acute heat illnesses; however, this summer could be comparatively severe as 25 percent of our survey respondents either lost their health insurance entirely (15 percent) or were put on a less generous plan due to COVID-19, and 40 percent of respondents indicated that the pandemic has harmed their ability to seek medical care. </p><p>In response to their energy insecurity, a third of households reported taking extreme measures to maintain comfortable temperatures in their home in the last year. Some of these measures are dangerous, such as using space heaters, which are the <a href="https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/US-Fire-Problem/Fire-causes/osHeating.pdf" target="_blank">leading cause of household fires</a> and associated deaths; turning on their stove; and burning trash. </p><p>As temperatures rise, we expect families to use methods of cooling their homes that will allow them to stay comfortable while keeping their energy costs low, such as taking cold showers, buying regular and dry ice, and using fans. Because we only expect conditions to worsen, it is critical that policymakers address energy insecurity; otherwise, the summer of 2020 will present unprecedented challenges to already-struggling American families.</p>
Inadequate policy responses<p><span>In the early weeks of the pandemic, the federal government took several steps to offer relief. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided every eligible low-income American with $1,200 in stimulus funding.</span></p><p>However, at the time of our survey, only 32 percent of respondents had received their check, presumably because low-income individuals are less likely to have a bank account or file their taxes through direct deposit. These delays have left many vulnerable during the early days of the pandemic, especially those that are energy insecure. </p><p></p>
Air conditioners in Brooklyn Heights. An estimated 65,000 people visit the emergency room each year due to acute heat illnesses; however, this summer could be comparatively severe. (Credit: Bonnie Natko/flickr))<p>Our survey results imply that those households that did receive a stimulus check were more likely to be able to pay their energy bill in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak.</p><p>Additionally, Congress extended federal unemployment insurance for those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic; yet, these benefits are <a href="https://www.marketplace.org/2020/06/05/when-does-the-expanded-covid-19-unemployment-insurance-run-out/" target="_blank">set to expire</a> at the end of July.</p><p>Finally, the CARES act provided $900 million in additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income households pay their energy bills; however, leading energy advocates are <a href="https://www.publicpower.org/periodical/article/group-calls-additional-43-billion-liheap-funding" target="_blank">calling</a> for billions in additional funding to meet the growing need for assistance through the summer months.</p><p>State governments and utility commissions also enacted <a href="https://www.naruc.org/compilation-of-covid-19-news-resources/state-response-tracker/" target="_blank">measures</a> to protect residents. As of June 2020, more than half of state governors signed orders to prevent utility shutoffs, though these protections vary greatly. They range from full moratoriums to narrow protections that leave millions susceptible to immediate disconnection and eventual debt accrual if they cannot pay their bill.</p>In addition, many of these orders are <a href="https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/energy-justice/pdfs/June-23-2020-Issue-Brief_State-Moratoria-on-Electric-ShutOffs.pdf" target="_blank">set to expire soon</a>, with two thirds of the population projected to be unprotected by July and 88 percent unprotected by August.