Wykeisha Howe is trying to be thrifty. When her kids are uncomfortable in the sweltering Atlanta heat, she gives them freeze pops. Instead of cranking up the air conditioner, she uses a fan. Lunch and dinner are cooked at the same time, so the electric stove doesn't have to be turned on twice.
"I try my best to manage and ration out things as best as possible," she says.
Still, Howe, who has five kids living at home, is about a month and a half behind on her electric bill. For the last four months, the bill didn't need to be a priority. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, her electricity provider, Georgia Power, voluntarily suspended disconnections for nonpayment.
Dozens of states and utilities around the U.S. took similar actions, ensuring that even as businesses closed and millions of Americans lost their jobs, people would still be able to keep their lights on regardless of their ability to pay.
Now, many of those power shut-off moratoriums are expiring, including Georgia Power's, which ended on July 15. And this comes as Americans who are still struggling face the end of another lifeline: supplemental unemployment benefits that are set to lapse.
Energy insecurity did not start with the pandemic. Roughly 1 in 3 U.S. households had a hard time paying energy bills in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration. Hispanics and racial minorities were disproportionately affected.
That trend has continued during the pandemic and economic crash.
A nationwide survey in May by the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University found that 22% of respondents had to reduce or forgo other basic needs, like food or medicine, to pay their energy bill in April. Seventeen percent of those surveyed weren't able to pay their energy bill at all. The rates were much higher for households of color, says Sanya Carley, an associate professor of public and environmental affairs at the O'Neill School.
"This isn't just an issue of not being able to afford energy," she says. "These issues are so wrapped up into bigger institutional discrimination and biases and other problems, such as housing stock and housing problems."