High energy bills force Americans to choose between paying utilities, rent, or even food
More Americans are behind on their utility bills than at any point since the 2009 Great Recession, a new report has found.
Fueled by dramatic spikes in the cost of energy and by the expiration of pandemic aid programs, Americans owed $17.8 billion on their utility bills as of the end of January 2023. That’s up from $15.9 billion in January 2022, according to the report, released this week by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA).
“Energy is increasing on average faster than the rate of inflation and is becoming increasingly unaffordable for millions of low-income families,” NEADA stated in a news release accompanying the report. “For the second year in a row, the cost of winter heating has risen faster than the overall rate of inflation and is now at the highest level in more than 10 years.”
The report found that some 20.5 million households – one in every six in the nation – were behind on their electric bills at the end of January 2023, up from 19.0 million at the end of January 2022, and about 13 million were behind on their natural gas bills, up from 12.5 million the year before. It found that families owed an average of $617 on their electric bills, up from $594 the year before, and $397 on their natural gas bills, up from $366 the prior year.
The report also found that applications for help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) increased more sharply than at any point since 2009.
“The number of households receiving energy assistance during the [past] winter season is up by an estimated 1.3 million, from 4.9 million to 6.2 million, the largest one-year increase since 2009,” NEADA stated. “And these numbers don’t even account for possible increases in applications this summer to help families pay for air-conditioning as they deal with rising temperatures due to climate change.”
The report warned that annual end-of-winter utility disconnection moratoriums are now expiring, placing millions of families at risk of a shut-off if they cannot pay their utility bills. It cited a recent report released by the Center for Biological Diversity that 4.2 million households were shut off from power in 2022.
“Families are falling behind on their home energy bills because of continued high home heating prices, rising prices for essential goods and services that are increasing faster than the rate of inflation, and the end of federal income-based stimulus payments,” NEADA says. “The combination of rising prices and cutbacks in income supports is creating a perfect storm of misery for low-income families that is making it increasingly difficult to pay their home energy bills.”
Mark Wolfe, NEADA Executive Director, says when bills are tight, families have to choose between paying rent on time, buying food, or paying their home energy bill. This year, such decisions are even more difficult.
Writing in The Hill, Wolfe explained that Congress provided about $6.1 billion to help around 6 million families pay to heat and cool their homes in 2023. That funding, however, is only sufficient to reach fewer than one in five eligible households.
Wolfe said Congress should pass the Heating and Cooling Relief Act, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). That measure would provide $40 billion annually for LIHEAP to help families pay their heating and cooling bills, mandate that energy bills be capped at 3 percent of a family’s income, and pay for comprehensive installation of energy efficiency measures to lower the overall amount of energy used by households.
“While there will be a cost to providing affordable home energy for low-income families, wouldn’t that be better than the current system that forces families to choose between food, medicine, and energy?” Wolfe wrote.