Natural gas and oil prices are soaring as cold weather descends on many parts of the United States. This winter, home heating costs are expected to rise by as much as 50%. For those with more resources, this may represent a mere inconvenience. But for low-income folks, who are disproportionately people of color, it will be an incredible hardship in an already-perilous time of year. When we look at who has access to adequate heating and home weatherization (Department of Energy), racism plays a key role.
Many American families are struggling to get by thanks to inflation, the effects of labor and supply chain shortages, and the ongoing pandemic. People of color lost work during COVID at higher rates than white workers and were also less likely to be re-employed, with Black women faring the worst (EPI). These disparities have exacerbated racial and economic inequality that was staggering even before the pandemic started.
Support the Action for Boston Community Development Winter Fund or a local organization providing direct support during this difficult time.
Demand Congress provide funding for home weatherization and demand continued moratoria on utility shutoffs in your state.
Pre-COVID, white households had 10 times the familial wealth of Black households (Brookings). The U.S. already had one of the highest child poverty rates among wealthy nations (WEF). Less than half of U.S. residents were able to reliably meet all of their basic needs such as food, housing, transportation, and medical care (Nevada Current).
Little wonder that one in three U.S. households could not adequately pay for household energy use (MSN). Rising home heating costs will only add to a toxic mix of income and wealth inequality where people of color are disproportionately likely to have the least.
For half a century, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was supposed to provide subsidized heating and cooling for low-income Americans. However, LIHEAP has been catastrophically underfunded, which means just one in five eligible households receive assistance (E&E). And those who do receive subsidized fuel are often still unable to adequately heat their home, like one elderly New York resident forced to continually boil water on her stove to survive the winter (MSN). Others live without heat entirely, unable to fix broken furnaces. And those unable to keep up with bills can find their utilities cut off entirely by the corporations that sell them.
“As compared to white households, Hispanic households were 15 times more likely to have their household disconnected [from utilities] for the first time, since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Michelle Graff of Indiana University. “And Black households were six times more likely.” Americans are expected to hold $24 million in electric and gas debt by the end of the year (Marketplace). Those whose utilities get shut off have worse health outcomes and are more likely to seek unsafe congregate settings to keep warm. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a universal ban on utility shutoffs during the pandemic could have reduced deaths by 15% (NBER).
Weatherizing homes increases energy efficiency, lowering utility bills and the chance of missing a payment. But it requires large upfront costs which are out of the question for those already struggling to make ends meet. This means those least able to pay for heating face the highest costs due to poorly-insulated homes (MSN). Repairing a broken home heating system also requires funds that many low-income families lack. And diverting money from rent payments to ensure adequate heating increases the likelihood that a family gets evicted and loses access to shelter in the coldest months of the year altogether. Economic injustice, inequitable access to fuel and weatherization, racism, and other oppressions contribute to the reality that hundreds of Americans die from the cold each year (EPA).
Fully funding LIHEAP and supporting home weatherization are steps the government could take today to reduce the seasonal distress of low-income families in cold parts of the country. Though some states enacted a moratorium on utility shutoffs due to non-payment, many bans are expiring. If we can ensure nobody loses heat because of poverty and support subsidies for fuel and home weatherization, racism that permeates American housing may finally, in part, decline.