Millions of Americans have fallen behind on utility bills during the pandemic.
Utility debt increased from around $12bn before the pandemic to an estimated $32bn by the end of 2020.
The UK, Europe and China have been racked by soaring energy prices. So far most of the US has been spared the worst of it but economists are predicting that here too an energy crisis is looming, and as winter approaches prices are rising, potentially threatening the utilities of millions more. Only Washington DC and three states – New York, New Jersey and Wyoming –have continued utility shutoff moratoriums that were begun during the pandemic. Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans expired in early September.
According to Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA), “The upcoming winter is of serious concern. Natural gas, heating oil and propane prices have become very expensive and will put pressure on families this winter. If additional funding is not provided then I expect that arrearages will spike again, unless Congress provides additional funding for energy assistance programs.”
Most states do not require utility companies to provide data on debt collections and shutoffs. An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity in June found over 1m households in 17 states in the US have experienced a utility shutoff since March 2020.
Since then, additional statewide shutoff moratoriums have expired, including in California where an estimated $2.7bn in utility debt was accrued during the pandemic.
More than one in four Americans report their households are struggling to cover usual expenses, while assistance funds have been slow to reach those in need.
High and unaffordable utility bills are a problem across the US that precedes the pandemic, but one that became more prominent in the past 18 months, as the lack of utility shutoff moratoriums have been linked to a rise in Covid cases and deaths.
“Utilities is one of those day to day issues that gets missed,” said Amna Farooqi, a senior organizer with the organization 9to5 Georgia. Farooqi noted elected officials have consistently diverted responsibilities when pushed on the issue of unaffordable utility bills, and high bills are blamed on personal use rather than systemic problems. “People are trying to kick the can of responsibility around, but we need federal policies in place, state policies in Georgia, but also local policies.”
In Albany, Georgia, where more than 30% live under the poverty rate, residents have experienced high utility bills for years, often exceeding $700 a month. A report released in September by 9to5 Georgia outlined why utility bills for the city and across the nation are often so high, citing the monopoly of energy companies, poor and energy inefficient housing, a lack of accountability for local and state governments overseeing utility services, and extreme weather events worsened by the climate crisis.
In the wake of hurricanes and winter storms throughout the US, utility companies have often passed on the costs incurred by these storms to residents, along with increased rates and fuel costs. Residents in Kansas, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas have complained about sudden surges in their utility bills through 2021.
Jesse Dorle of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, noted her utility bills for a one-bedroom apartment have doubled, from around $175 to $350 a month in recent months due to costs incurred by utility companies for bad winter storms in early 2021.
Said Dorle, “Hard-working people like myself are struggling to keep our heads above water, and this hike is ruining us. Why should we have to pay enormously high costs for a basic human necessity?”