Winter is coming, and it’s going to be colder for some than others.
“Starting junior year,” recalls Alexis Stewart, a West Virginia-based writer and musician, “my mom said we couldn’t afford heat and I had to ‘suck it up.’ I don’t know if we didn’t qualify for [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] those years or if the funding ran out before they got to us. I bought a space heater with money from my part time job, but because of the poor insulation, I’d still wake up to a stiff frozen blanket.”
Stewart grew up in a low-income household and today still struggles with the cost of heat. While living in one antiquated shared home in Huntington, “the food bank used to see a lot of me between November and March” thanks to high heating bills that were challenging even when split among six people.
Stewart is not alone in experiencing the “heat or eat” bind. A 2015 Department of Energy study found 25 million American households skipping food and medicine to pay for energy, with 7 million reporting they did so every month.
A household faces a high-energy burden, also described as energy insecurity or fuel poverty, any time heating costs exceed 10 percent of its income. Prices for fuel oil and propane spike in January and February, during the coldest part of the winter, and are on track to increase in 2018 over 2017, with propane costs per gallon across the country 8 cents higher in October 2018 than October 2017, according to the Department of Energy. (The amount of fuel needed by a household varies significantly depending on location, temperature, insulation, and other factors.)
Electricity prices tend to peak in summer, reflecting cooling costs, but are also on a steady upward trend. And these numbers do not necessarily capture the true cost of heating a home to a comfortable temperature, as Stewart’s experience demonstrates, only what is spent on heating.
Data show high energy burdens hit low-income people particularly hard, and that prices are heavily racialized as well, with Black households paying more thanks to inequalities in access to credit, paired with pricing structures that can penalize households that use minimal electricity. Elderly and disabled people can also face a high energy burden between medical conditions that may necessitate warmer temperatures and their higher poverty rates.
Poorly maintained heating systems and homes that lack energy efficiency updates can drive up heating expenses even further. A 2017 WUFT investigation in Gainesville, Florida, identified “substandard housing” as a significant culprit in differential energy costs, noting that low-income people are more likely to live in homes with energy efficiency shortcomings. Lauren Ross, Director of the Local Policy Program at American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, notes that her research has shown this to be a particular problem in rural areas, where housing stock is of much poorer quality.
Precise numbers on deaths associated with extreme cold are a subject of dispute, as there are many ways to define a cold death beyond obvious cases of hypothermia caused by exposure, but it’s a certainty that cold kills. Secondary illnesses and other complications associated with cold can cause cold-related deaths as well.
A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on deaths attributed to weather on death certificates found that two thirds — about 1,200 people annually — were associated with cold, with those in low-income communities much more likely to experience weather-related deaths. In 2015, a Lancet paper found deaths attributed to cold were 20 times more common than those associated with heat, making particular note of the fact that extreme cold wasn’t the leading cause of death: Even moderately cold temperatures were enough to kill.
Cold also makes people sick, especially elders, disabled people, and the Black community, according to the Lancet research. Cold can cause health problems for people with preexisting heart conditions, respiratory disorders, and more. A 2010 UK study noted children raised in cold conditions experienced developmental delays and other health complications.
Carbon monoxide poisoning caused by broken or unvented heaters used in enclosed rooms to combat cold, as has been observed in households trying to heat themselves without power after storms, is also a potential issue for households struggling with energy insecurity.
The consequences of being unable to afford heating go further, though. Being unable to pay utility bills can reflect negatively on tenants’ credit and may indicate that a household is at risk of foreclosure or eviction; utility bills were identified as a potential cause of homelessness in a 2007 University of Colorado, Denver analysis of the state’s Point in Time homelessness count.
Programs such as LIHEAP and the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program are designed to address these issues, but they fall short on funds, community outreach, and scope — they sometimes have rigid rules that will allow a program to replace a heater, but not to repair a badly warped door that allows freezing air to blast through a house, for example. Financial assistance programs administered by utilities and community organizations have similar shortcomings. So people often rely on support from churches, friends, family, and strangers – sites like GoFundMe include fundraisers asking for help filling fuel oil tanks, paying off delinquent bills, and repairing heating equipment.
LIHEAP, established in 1981, offers state-administered funds to people making 200 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of state median, but it is a first-come, first-serve program that often runs out of funds before it’s reached all the people who need it. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, just 20 percent of households who qualify receive funding each year. The Trump administration has also tried to eliminate the program, twice.
But increasing LIHEAP and efficiency program funding alone won’t solve the bigger problem. State-by-state laws on maintenance of heating infrastructure and whether landlords are required to provide heat vary widely, creating uncertainty about landlord responsibility for the safety and operability of heating equipment. Even in states where landlord responsibility is clear, tenants may fear retaliation if they ask for repairs or energy efficiency improvements.
Ross says many local programs aimed at addressing these problems don’t take advantage of stacking available funds — like federal dollars and a regional energy efficiency grant – to address underserved households with improvements that will lower energy bills and improve quality of life. Changes to restrictive policies that limit how funds can be spent are also necessary.
“In adulthood, I’ve moved an average of once every two years in the past ten. Most of those were mostly economic driven,” said Stewart. Lower heating bills — and higher wages — could change that.