- About one quarter of low-income U.S. households could not afford to pay an energy bill in the year leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Black households experienced 1.9 times greater odds of receiving a disconnection notice and 2.2 times greater odds of having their utility service disconnected than White households.
- The pandemic worsened racial and ethnic disparities in energy insecurity.
- Households that received a COVID-19 stimulus payment were less likely to face energy insecurity
Infectious and non-communicable diseases impact marginalized and socially vulnerable populations at disproportionate rates. In the United States, differences in illness and death rates due to COVID-19 align with differences in income, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and other and other social conditions. Hispanic, Black, NHOPI and AIAN people are from 1.7 to 2 times as likely to die from COVID-19 as their White counterparts after adjusting for age.
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In another article, I discussed energy insecurity, which refers to the sometimes chronic uncertainty a household faces regarding their capacity to pay utility bills. This article explores how the COVID-19 pandemic affected energy insecurity in the United States. Researchers at the Energy Justice Lab at the University of Indiana addressed this question in a survey of 2,381 adults in households with incomes at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) in April and May 2020.1 Their results clearly demonstrate how the pandemic exacerbated energy insecurity for some of the country’s most vulnerable populations.
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About 25% of low income households could not afford to pay an energy bill in the past year; nearly 13% could not afford their bill in April/May 2020 alone, an early month of the pandemic. Other forms of energy insecurity exhibited a similar pattern. About nine million people lived in households that received a disconnect notice in April/May 2020.
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What types of households bear the brunt of energy security? Hispanic, Black, NHOPI and AIAN households; households with young children; households with a member that relies on an electronic medical device; and those who reside in poor housing conditions (for example, mold, holes in the wall and/or floor, plumbing problems, broken heating and air conditioning, exposed electrical sockets, non-working stove and/or refrigerator, or poor insulation) all reported higher incidences of energy insecurity. Such disparities widened with the onset of the pandemic.
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How much more likely is a Black household to experience energy security compared to a White household? The answer can be expressed in what is called an “odds ratio.” Prior to the pandemic, Black households experienced 1.9 times greater odds of receiving a disconnection notice and 2.2 times greater odds of having their utility service disconnected than White households. Hispanic households faced disconnection at 1.9 times greater odds than White households. The pandemic worsened racial and ethnic disparities. Black (Hispanic) households were at 3.4 (3.6) greater odds of being disconnected from their utility service during the pandemic than White households.
What specific aspects of the pandemic worsened energy insecurity? Households with COVID-19 symptoms, lost job hours due to illness, and other COVID related hardships experienced heightened levels of energy insecurity. Note that households that received a COVID-19 stimulus payment as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act were less likely to face issues as the pandemic began to unfold. These characteristics of households are reflected in different odds of experiencing all forms of energy insecurity. Households that reported having a household member with symptoms or a COVID-19 diagnosis had greater odds of reporting an inability to pay one’s energy bill, whereas those who received a stimulus check had greater odds of avoiding utility disconnection.
Even when income is accounted for there are notable disparities in all indicators of energy and security across race, ethnicity, families with young children, households with an individual who relies on an electronic medical device, and people who live in residences of poor quality. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated energy insecurity on all fronts.
1 Memmott, Trevor, Sanya Carley, Michelle Graff, and David M. Konisky. “Sociodemographic Disparities in Energy Insecurity among Low-Income Households before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Nature Energy 6, no. 2 (February 2021): 186–93. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-00763-9.