Winter is coming and it will be colder for some than for others.

“Starting in junior year,” recalls Alexis Stewart, a West Virginia-based writer and musician, “my mom said we couldn’t afford to heat up and I had to ‘suck it off.’ I don’t know if we weren’t qualified for [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] those years or if the funding ran out before they reached us. I bought a heater with the money from my part-time job, but due to the poor insulation I still woke up with a frozen hard cover.

Stewart grew up in a low-income household and still struggles with the cost of heating. While I lived in an archaic shared house in Huntington, “the food bank saw me a lot between November and March” thanks to high heating bills that were difficult even when split among six people.

Stewart isn’t the only one to experience the “heat or eat” connection. A 2015 Department of Energy study found that 25 million American households skipped food and medicine to pay for their energy, and 7 million reported doing so every month.

A household faces a high energy load, also described as energy insecurity or fuel poverty, whenever heating costs exceed 10 percent of its income. Fuel oil and propane prices increase in January and February, during the coldest part of winter, and are set to increase in 2018 from 2017, with propane costs per gallon across the country 8 cents higher in October 2018 than in October 2017, according to the Department of Energy. (The amount of fuel needed for a household varies widely depending on location, temperature, insulation, and other factors.)

Electricity prices tend to peak in the summer, reflecting cooling costs, but are also on a steady upward trend. And these numbers don’t necessarily reflect the actual cost of heating a home to a comfortable temperature, as Stewart’s experience demonstrates, just what is spent on heating.

Data shows that high energy charges hit low-income people particularly hard, and that prices are also strongly racialized, with black households paying more thanks to inequalities in access to credit, coupled with pricing structures that can penalize households. that use little electricity. The elderly and disabled may also face a high energy load between medical conditions that may require warmer temperatures and their higher poverty rates.

Poorly maintained heating systems and homes that lack energy efficiency updates can increase heating expenses even further. A 2017 WUFT survey in Gainesville, Florida identified ‘substandard housing’ as a major contributor to incremental energy costs, noting that low-income people are more likely to live in homes with poor efficiency. energetic. Lauren Ross, director of the local policy program at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, notes that her research has shown that this is a particular problem in rural areas, where the housing stock is much lower quality.

The precise figures for deaths associated with extreme cold are a matter of controversy, as there are many ways to define a cold death beyond the obvious cases of hypothermia caused by exposure, but it is certain that the cold kill. Secondary illnesses and other complications associated with cold can also lead to cold-related deaths.

A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of deaths attributed to weather conditions on death certificates found that two-thirds – about 1,200 people per year – were associated with cold, with people in low-income communities being much more likely to experience weather-related deaths. In 2015, a Lancet paper found that deaths attributed to cold were 20 times more common than those associated with heat, noting in particular that extreme cold was not the leading cause of death: even moderately cold temperatures were enough to kill.

The cold also makes people sick, especially the elderly, the disabled and the black community, according to the Lancet research. The cold can cause health problems for people with pre-existing heart problems, breathing problems, etc. A 2010 UK study noted that children raised in cold conditions had developmental delays and other health complications.

Carbon monoxide poisoning caused by broken or unvented heaters used in closed rooms to combat the cold, as has been observed in households trying to heat themselves without electricity after storms, is also a potential problem for households struggling with energy insecurity.

The precise figures for deaths associated with extreme cold are the subject of controversy … but it is a certainty that the cold kills.

The consequences of not being able to afford heating, however, go further. Failure to pay utility bills can negatively affect tenant credit and may indicate a household is at risk of foreclosure or eviction; Utility bills were identified as a potential cause of homelessness in a 2007 University of Colorado Denver analysis of the state’s homeless tally at one point in time.

Programs like LIHEAP and the Department of Energy’s Weather Assistance Program are designed to address these issues, but they lack funds, community awareness and reach – they sometimes have rigid rules that will allow a program to replace a furnace, but not to fix a badly warped door that allows freezing air to pass through a house, for example. Financial assistance programs administered by public services and community organizations have similar shortcomings. So people often rely on the support of churches, friends, family and strangers – sites like GoFundMe include fundraisers asking for help filling oil tanks, paying overdue bills and fixing things. heating equipment.

LIHEAP, established in 1981, offers state-administered funds to people earning 200% of the federal poverty level or 60% of the state median, but it is a first-come, first-served program. which often runs out of funds before reaching all the people who need it. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, only 20 percent of eligible households receive funding each year. The Trump administration has also attempted to eliminate the program on two occasions.

But increasing funding for the LIHEAP program and efficiency alone will not solve the biggest problem. State-to-state laws on the maintenance of heating infrastructure and whether homeowners are required to provide heat vary widely, creating uncertainty about homeowners’ liability for heating. safety and operation of heating equipment. Even in states where landlord responsibility is clear, tenants may fear retaliation if they request repairs or energy efficiency upgrades.

Ross says many local programs aimed at addressing these issues are not taking advantage of the build-up of available funds – like federal dollars and a regional energy efficiency grant – to address underserved households with upgrades that will reduce energy bills and will improve the quality of life. Changes to restrictive policies that limit how funds can be spent are also needed.

“As an adult, I’ve moved on average once every two years over the past ten years. Most of them were primarily focused on the economy, ”said Stewart. Lower heating bills – and higher wages – could change that.


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