The gas in Diana Morgan Magda’s house was shut off in May. Now when she wants to take a bath she uses an electric kettle to heat the water. It takes an hour.
Magda, who lives in Girard, Ohio, relies on social security disability benefits for her sole income. Like many Americans, she can’t pay all her bills, living expenses and medication with the benefits she receives, and through the pandemic she fell behind on utility bills.
Millions more Americans fell behind on utility bills during the pandemic. Utility debt increased from around $12bn before the pandemic to an estimated $32bn by the end of 2020, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA).
The UK, Europe and China have been racked by soaring energy prices. So far most of the US has been spared the worst of it but economists are predicting that here too an energy crisis is looming, and as winter approaches prices are rising, potentially threatening the utilities of millions more.
“I’m disabled and have had to live without hot water, a stove to cook on, and now heat. It’s been so hard,” said Magda.
She’s behind on her electric bill and fears having that shut off as well. Attempts to get help with her utility bills have so far failed and she was told local charities and community groups are out of funds until 1 November.
“I can only eat certain things because I have to use the microwave or electric skillet,” added Magda. “Social security is not sufficient to cover my bills and everything else I need for a month. I was always sending what I could to the utility bills but couldn’t make the payments they asked for.”
Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA, noted utility debt could have been much worse without supplemental funding through the American Rescue Plan in March 2021 and additional funding to the annual budget of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Only Washington DC and three states – New York, New Jersey and Wyoming –have continued utility shutoff moratoriums that were begun during the pandemic. But worries of increases in utility debt remain. Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans expired in early September and natural gas prices are expected to rise by as much as 30% for consumers this winter throughout the US, Europe and Asia.
“The upcoming winter is of serious concern. Natural gas, heating oil and propane prices have become very expensive and will put pressure on families this winter,” said Wolfe. “If additional funding is not provided then I expect that arrearages will spike again, unless Congress provides additional funding for energy assistance programs.”