As the nation remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, a more insidious crisis is taking root as households are unable to pay their energy bills, risking serious health consequences and increasing debt, while federal and state governments fail to adequately protect vulnerable families.
Before COVID-19, one in three American households were struggling to pay their energy bills.
An increase in extreme temperatures – brought on by climate change – combined with rising energy costs forced consumers to make impossible choices between keeping their lights on, purchasing food, or seeking medical care.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this problem. As individuals lost their jobs at alarming rates, they were also asked, or mandated, to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus. This led to an unexpected increase in residential energy use and corresponding energy bills.
In a new nationally representative survey of 2,381 low-income households, administered in May 2020, we find that the pandemic has deepened energy insecurity. Those who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic were three times more likely to report an inability to pay an energy bill in the previous month.
In addition, like COVID-19 itself, energy insecurity has disproportionately worsened for vulnerable populations. African American (16 percent) and Hispanic (19 percent) households were far more likely to report difficulty paying an energy bill in the last month compared to White respondents (9 percent).
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