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An 'invisible' crisis: Already behind on utility bills, many Americans face a tough winter

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/7/2022 Trevor Hughes and Bailey Schulz, USA TODAY
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LONGMONT, Colo. – The temperature is dipping toward freezing Tuesday night and Toni Stark is getting worried about her rickety basement furnace holding out for another winter.

Her plumber told her it will probably make it through, but at 99 years old, Stark isn't taking anything for granted – whether that's being able to keep the furnace running or remaining in her home as the electric and heating bills begin to mount with the cold.

Antoinette "Toni" Stark, 99, points out an exterior light on her single-story home in Longmont, Colo. Stark has lived in the house since 1978, and now lives off Social Security and a small amount of savings, and uses heating assistance from the federal government to help pay her utility bills during the cold winters. © Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY Antoinette "Toni" Stark, 99, points out an exterior light on her single-story home in Longmont, Colo. Stark has lived in the house since 1978, and now lives off Social Security and a small amount of savings, and uses heating assistance from the federal government to help pay her utility bills during the cold winters.

“I keep thinking about what to do if I have to replace it," she says from the living room of her one-story brick home about an hour northwest of Denver. “I’m comfortable in this house. I wouldn’t want to leave.”

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For several years, Stark has been receiving a small payment from the federal government that helps her cover her utility bills.

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The money isn't much, but the annual assistance under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program gives her a little breathing room as she juggles paying unexpected dental expenses and higher food costs with her Social Security and small savings account.

“It means I can manage my other money a little better, helps me with my groceries," she says. “I probably sit in the dark more than I should. It’s been a real help. I appreciate it picks up the slack.”

Heating bills this winter on the rise

A combination of factors – from supply constraints caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine to high inflation and a hot summer – has experts from the United States and Europe worried that the poorest Americans will struggle even more than usual to keep warm, safe and healthy in the coming months. Experts say those, particularly at risk, are older people living on fixed incomes, the very young, and people who are already sick.

"We're looking at a potential public health crisis," says Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, a nonprofit that helps states acquire and distribute federal heating and cooling aid for low-income residents.

An estimated 1 in 6 American households are already behind on their utility bills after a scorching summer forced them to run air conditioning more than usual, Wolfe says. He and other experts said people are being forced to make tough choices about balancing their rising energy bills with against medicine, food and gas for their cars.

Households that primarily use natural gas for heating are expected to spend an average of $931 on warming their homes between October and March, a 28% jump from last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says.  For 2022, national energy association sees the cost of annual utility services rising to $3,803, reflecting high prices for natural gas, heating oil and propane, and this summer’s heat waves.

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The rising prices aren't expected to go away any time soon, according to Devin Hartman, director of energy and environmental policy at R Street Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.

Hartman said the price hikes are due in part to natural gas becoming more integrated into the global market now that producers can more easily ship natural gas to other countries. While Hartman says this is a positive development for gas markets, it also means disruptions abroad like the war in Ukraine have a greater effect on prices in the U.S. 

Natural gas also has become increasingly important in electricity generation and heating in the U.S. and is now the primary heating source for about half of all U.S. households. That means more Americans see their bills go up when natural gas prices rise. 

“There's almost no scenario where elevated natural gas prices do not play out for the remainder of this decade,” he told USA TODAY.

Those heating their homes with oil won’t fare much better this winter. The Energy Information Administration expects the 4% of U.S. households that use heating oil as their primary space heating fuel to spend 27% more this winter due to an increase in consumption. The Energy Information Administration says if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecast of a colder winter in much of the U.S. holds true, the average household will consume 9% more gallons of heating oil this winter compared with last winter. 

The higher prices have made fuel assistance even more important for people like Boston resident Valerie Saucer, 68. A part-time community college instructor, she received fuel assistance last year and is waiting for approval for the upcoming winter heating season that formally began Tuesday.

While Saucer had been paying about $5,000 for heating during the cooler months, she said she was approved for $1,500 worth of oil last year from fuel assistance administered by the nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development. The nonprofit also insulated her drafty five-bedroom home, replaced a leaky fuel tank and installed a new boiler and mini split air conditioner earlier this year, which should help lower her long-term heating costs.

Even with the assistance, Saucer takes steps to cut her heating oil bill. She layers on clothes and blankets and goes to bed early to keep her heating and electricity costs low. And with her paycheck not going as far due to inflation, she’s had to cut back on other costs like groceries.  

Saucer has been approved for less fuel assistance this winter – about $1,200 – and worries about just how much money she'll need to spend to heat her home. 

“You're going to buy food for yourself or you buy the heat,” she said. “Periodically, I rob Peter to pay Paul, just to make sure the lights stay on and that the house stays warm.”

Most states bar utilities from shutting off power to households with very young, old, or medically vulnerable people, especially during the winter months. But higher utility costs still have some experts concerned.

Research from Diana Hernández, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, found energy insecurity is associated with inadequate sleep, respiratory illnesses and mental strain. Hypothermia is also "a big concern," she told USA TODAY. 

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Help with utility bills

Clair Cook of New York City said she spent months with her natural gas shut off in 2019 after her mom died and passed along more than $11,000 in debt to their utility that Cook was unable to pay off.

She said her typical natural gas bill for her home in Queens was already unaffordable before the utility company tacked on monthly debt repayments.

"They need the money to run the utilities, I understand that. But it’s high," said Cook, who lives with a 27-year-old son she says suffers from chronic fatigue and other symptoms after falling off a bunkbed as a child.

Cook said her gas was turned off in the months leading up to the winter of 2019, forcing her to use a hot plate to cook and to heat water for baths.

"You’ve got to deal with bills that you can’t pay and you’ve got a sick child and you’re trying to keep him comfortable with whatever little means that you have,” she told USA TODAY.

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Earlier this year, she was able to erase the utility debt through the Energy Affordability Electric & Gas Bill Relief Program. By that point, records show she owed more than $14,000. 

While her debt to the natural gas utility is gone, Cook still faces monthly payments for heating and has yet to learn if she qualifies for additional energy assistance this winter. And because she owes her electric utility about $8,000, she said she worries about her utilities getting cut off again.

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The increased oil and gas prices have many Democrats, including President Joe Biden, trying to shame oil companies for their record profits.

Republicans, including Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, say the solution is to increase oil and gas drilling and to slow the transition to renewable energy like wind and solar, which are usually more expensive sources of electricity but also less subject to wild price swings.

In Europe, where residents are also facing a utility price-hike crisis of their own, governments are imposing electricity austerity measures and capping bills for low-income residents. And they are doubling down on solar and wind generating capacity after being forced to ramp up coal and nuclear generation due to disruptions in the Russian national gas supply.

"We're unfortunately going to experience very high prices for electricity and for heating, and we're going to see people live through significantly lower levels of comfort," said Kristian Ruby, the secretary general of the 3,500-member Eurelectric group, which represents utilities across the continent.

For decades, most people used more electricity and heating fuel in the winter months. But experts say increasingly hot summer temperatures are forcing more and more Americans to use air conditioning, swamp coolers and fans more. That means they're not getting a chance to economize on their electricity usage. Air conditioning costs rose from about $450 to about $600 on average this summer, according to Energy Assistance Directors Association.

Acknowledging the growing challenge of summer heat, the federal funds formally known as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program can now also help people with bills generated by air conditioning or fans. 

"Summer is usually the time when people can get a break, get a breather, but they didn't get that this summer," said Denise Stepto, a spokeswoman for Energy Outreach Colorado, which last year provided utility assistance for more than 23,000 households.

An invisible crisis

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, recipients of energy aid, including the federal energy assistance program, are primarily white, non-Hispanic people and almost 60% women.

Experts said that may reflect the reality of mothers trying to keep their kids warm. About 5.3 million, or 4%, of American households, receive federal energy assistance annually, with assistance generally limited to $450 to $600.

Stepto said cold temperatures inside the home are an "invisible" crisis – you can't tell just from looking who is sleeping in a coat and hat, skipping medicine or meals to keep the heat on.

"It's going to be a winter where people are concentrating a lot on how to stay warm and safe in their homes," she said.

Primarily distributed at the state level, the federal government each year provides billions of dollars in heating assistance to low-income Americans.

Federal funding for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is set at $4.5 billion this year, but some say it’s insufficient.

“Families are going to be under additional pressure because the cost of heating has gone up and the cost of everything else has gone up,” said former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, the managing director at non-profit Citizens Energy Corp. who has urged Biden to increase funding for federal fuel assistance.

But while programs like energy assistance program can be a lifeline for families dealing with energy insecurity, few eligible households see any of the funding. In 2017, just 15% of them received heating or winter crisis assistance benefits.

Several experts said low-income families struggling with the death of a primary wage earner or layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic are particularly at risk because they are already being squeezed by high rents, food costs and gas prices.

Others on fixed incomes are also worried.

Marjorie Ritchie, who lives off Social Security checks, has watched the property taxes on her San Francisco Bay Area home double in the past 20 years. When her furnace blew, the Alameda County-based Spectrum Community Services used energy assistance program money to replace the furnace and provided her with $556 for her utility bills.

While thankful for the assistance, Ritchie worries about others who might need even more help.

"I don't know how people with a family can manage," she said.

It's not only low-income people struggling to pay off rising heating costs. 

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Tanya Jones, senior director of energy assistance and community development at HeartShare Human Services in New York, said she’s seeing price hikes affect an unusually large share of middle-income families this year. 

And because many do not qualify for energy assistance programs, Jones says many of these families are “falling through the cracks.”

Unpaid heat causes other problems

In Colorado's high country, the Summit Family & Intercultural Resource Center is bracing for a increase in requests for utility assistance. Center officials worry that people facing higher energy bills will turn down their heat to save money, causing pipes to burst.

"We have pipes that will freeze in older homes, uninsulated homes, and so it can cause a lot of problems to turn down the heat, incredibly expensive problems,"  said Executive Director Brianne Snow.

Back in Longmont, Stark remains thankful for the heating assistance and worries about her furnace.

She's cautious about money. She's buying tougher cuts of steak and doesn't mind the extra chewing, she said, since she's still got her own teeth.

And although she no longer drives, she reads her local newspaper, the Daily Times-Call, every morning, keeping abreast of gas prices, international events, food prices and the politicians in whom she puts little stock.  

“I read the obituaries every day and if I’m not in there, I figure I can start the day," she says with a laugh.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: An 'invisible' crisis: Already behind on utility bills, many Americans face a tough winter

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