If you have never struggled to pay the electricity bill, it may be hard to imagine the reality facing many Americans. Heating, cooling, and lighting the home are significant expenses that disproportionately affect low-income families. These ten facts will shed some light on energy poverty in the U.S.
- Energy poverty refers to low-income households that cannot afford high electricity prices. Housing analysts like economist Roger Colton define energy costs as “affordable” if the utility bills for heat and light are less than 6% of the household income. Other experts cite 10% as the baseline of unaffordable monthly utilities.
- Energy poverty means more than punitively high utility bills. Secondary effects of energy poverty include:
- Going without heat
- No hot water
- Going without light after sundown
- Foregoing food or medicine to pay for utilities
- Using improvised and unsafe energy alternatives
- Energy poverty in the U.S. is a major factor in the pandemic of homeless children. Next to domestic violence, not being able to afford utility bills is the #2 reason for homelessness.
- Energy consumption is a classic example of “the high cost of being poor.” Tenants who pay for their own heat face a great obstacle when the property owner is not motivated to improve efficiency. Renters live in draftier homes than homeowners who put in better insulation and newer windows. Tenants are forced to use older, less efficient appliances and are unable to take part in tax incentives.
- Without reliable power, low-income households resort to burning charcoal and biomass which are “organic” but are unsafe and an environmentally unfriendly means to energy production. Some resort to burning pressure-treated lumber scrapped from construction sites, releasing deadly arsenic fumes.
- Unventilated stove smoke is deadlier than malaria. Even pure natural wood smoke is noxious when breathed indoors. This hazard disproportionally affects women and children.
- Progress to relieve energy poverty is slow going. Population growth is keeping pace with energy delivery gains, leaving many still in the dark. The Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program delivered over $3 billion of relief in 2015, but funds only reached 22% of families that needed assistance.
- Energy poverty follows overall income disparity. The poorest parts of the world like India and China have the most acutely underserved neighborhoods, and the same applies to energy poverty in the U.S.
- The private and public sectors are both working to do their part to address energy challenges, but we are not there yet. The world is collectively behind schedule for meeting the UN plan for renewable energy, the Sustainable Energy for All initiative.
- Poorer households are paying dramatically high proportions of their income. Studies show much of the country’s poor are paying 25% of their income for heat and light – and in some extreme examples, figures are closer to 75%.
Energy poverty in the U.S. is more than a news story to the millions of American families struggling to keep their homes secure and hospitable. Electricity is necessary for staying healthy, safe, and connected to the outside world. Moving to safe renewable energy sources is both an economic and humanitarian effort.