Energy insecurity new concerns during cold snap

In spite of its toll on America’s most vulnerable citizens, the problem of energy insecurity is still widely unreported, even as the country experiences another bout of unrelenting bitterly cold weather conditions.

A team of researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health published a new brief – Energy Insecurity among Families With Children – which paints a picture of families worst affected, and puts forward recommendations to address the problem of energy insecurity for millions of struggling Americans.

The team note that government sponsored programs aimed at tackling energy security are inadequate.

How is energy insecurity measured?

Energy insecurity is measured by calculating what proportion of a household’s income is spent on energy. Energy insecurity (EI) is more common among people with lower incomes, partly because they tend to live in houses that are not as well insulated as those lived in by better-off Americans.

Yumiko Aratani, PhD, acting director for health/mental health at the National Center for Children in Poverty, said:

“While economic energy insecurity is experienced across the spectrum, it disproportionately affects those who are poorest, who are nearest the poverty line.”

“We hope that our discussion of energy insecurity will galvanize policy-makers to study this problem further and take steps to ameliorate its affects.”

The study used comprehensive current data to describe the extent of EI by geographic area, demographic characteristics and family income. The researchers define energy insecurity as “a disproportionate share of household income allocated to energy expenses among families with children.”

Energy insecure families are those with an energy burden of at least 10%.

Below are some highlighted findings from the report:

  • More than 50% of families affected by economic energy insecurity live below 100% of the federal poverty level (i.e. they live in poverty), while approximately one third are “extremely poor”.
  • While approximately one-third of households facing economic EI are White, about half are Black/African American.
  • The South has the highest proportion (46%) of children living in households with economic EI.

Forty-one percent of families with economic EI are homeowners, and over half are renting tenants.

US energy assistance programs are inadequate

Only a fraction of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) covers families’ overall needs, the authors point out. LIHEAP is the country’s main safety net for people with energy insecurity.

Ten to fifteen million homes were eligible for benefits in 2012. However, only 5.5 of them received any kind of help. A large number of eligible households do not know LIHEAP exists. Even though energy costs have been rising, the program has a serious lack of funding problem. From 2011 through 2013 it suffered a $1.2 billion budget deficit.

Co-author, Diana Hernández, PhD, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, said:

“When we took a hard look at LIHEAP, the main safety net program for energy assistance, we found multiple constraints. In addition to funding shortfalls, the program is designed to provide rate discounts, debt forgiveness and different types of waivers when what this population desperately needs is energy-efficiency retrofits and interventions.”

Dr. Hernandez adds that steep cuts in spending in the aftermath of Stimulus Funding have also undermined the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP).

Renée Wilson-Simmons, DrPH, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, said:

“Our country has embraced energy conservation heartily but we have not put nearly enough emphasis on serving low-income populations who urgently need assistance. This study will shine a light on families who are burdened by disproportionate energy expenditures.”

Non-profit organizations and private foundations, on the other hand, such as the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, are making a positive contribution towards the needs of low-income households, the study points out.

Yang Jiang,PhD, a family demographer at the National Center for Children in Poverty, said:

“We were pleased to discover the many benefits of this program for underserved households because its benefits are tangible and well-documented. For instance, we discuss significant reductions in asthma related emergency room visits in Baltimore after a six month intervention. Clearly more can be done for families struggling to meet basic energy needs.”