Originally published in The Hill
One in six U.S. families currently has overdue utility bills. When people are unable to pay, many electric and gas utilities have the option to disconnect their services. That means more than 20 million families are at risk of losing vital power for their homes. When people don’t have access to electricity, they cannot turn on lifesaving medical devices, refrigerators and air conditioners or furnaces.
Access to these appliances isn’t a luxury but a necessity. Yet, there’s no federal law guaranteeing the right to essential electricity needs and disconnect policies vary across states. While utility companies can recover their costs from unpaid bills and continue to make a profit, families are left, literally, in the dark as their bills pile up. Congress must enact federal legislation banning disconnects, giving people the chance to stay safe while catching up.
I know what it’s like to be disconnected. As a teenager, our family suddenly became financially unstable after my parents divorced and, despite my dad’s hard work and my brother and I getting jobs, we often had to decide between paying our electricity bill or buying groceries. We quickly learned to fear yellow envelopes from the utility, the ones that meant our critical services would be disconnected due to late payments. I once had the flu during a particularly cold October in Kentucky, but we couldn’t turn on our furnace because our electricity provider turned off our power after we fell behind on our bill. So, to fight off chills, I wrapped myself in blankets and slept on the floor next to our wood-burning fireplace.
When I’ve told people about my experience with energy insecurity, they often ask if we were aware of utility-run financial assistance programs. But after a company has repeatedly turned off your electricity, you don’t trust them. And because we were working, going to school and trying to make ends meet, we didn’t have the time to research our options.
Like many people we also didn’t know there were programs and community groups that could help. We may not have applied because of the unfortunate stigma around pursuing financial assistance. Even so, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program doesn’t have enough funding to assist all families in need today, even after receiving additional funding from Congress last month. A nationwide ban on electricity disconnects, on the other hand, would no longer place the burden on consumers to prove they need help at a desperate time.
For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated and exacerbated many underlying inequities in our economic and health systems. Staying home meant higher electricity bills. Fortunately, some utility companies and elected officials recognized early in the pandemic that it was crucial to keep people’s lights on, so they implemented disconnect moratoria — temporary policies that meant no one would have their utilities cut off because they couldn’t pay.
A National Bureau of Economic Research report found that these moratoria helped reduce the COVID-19 death rate by 7.4 percent. Had a federal moratorium policy been in place, the COVID-19 mortality rate could’ve been reduced by 14.8 percent. And yet, utility companies actively lobbied lawmakers against such a nationwide policy. Policy decisions have real consequences for people’s health and well-being, and, when the benefits are so clear, it should not be left to companies and a patchwork of states to make such life-or-death choices.
Once state shut-off suspensions expired, disconnects didn’t just resume, they actually increased by 79 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity and BailoutWatch. It isn’t surprising that people fell behind in paying their bills during a pandemic when you consider that millions of people lost their jobs, couldn’t work while sick or lost income when a loved one died. Yet, the same report found the utilities studied grew their revenues by $5.2 billion during the pandemic, with financial gains for shareholders and CEOs. In fact, these companies could’ve forgiven customer debt and still made a profit for their shareholders. Instead, many of the utilities choose to recover their costs by charging other customers more money.
According to the National Consumer Law Center, African American, American Indian, Alaska Native and multiracial households more frequently receive disconnect notices compared with households with other racial identities within the same income level. This finding shows the need for demographic data to be collected by public health departments and utilities to accurately assess the severity of the problem and ensure solutions are equitable and benefit those most in need.
Last month, members of Congress took a meaningful first step by introducing a resolution to recognize utility access as a human right. Our health and wellness suffer without these vital services, putting families at needless risk. I know my family would’ve benefitted from proactive solutions that sought to lift us up rather than punish us for our debt. Right now, 20 million families need Congress to swiftly act to pass federal protections now, so they don’t lose lifesaving electricity.