An 'invisible' crisis: Behind on utility bills as a freezing winter looms

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.

“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.”

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 State 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, NEADA 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 in 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.

Additionally, natural gas 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. And even if U.S. natural gas prices aren’t expected to get as high as those seen in Europe any time soon, “you’re going to see substantially elevated natural gas and electricity prices for years to come.”

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Those heating their homes with oil won’t fare much better this winter. The EIA 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 EIA 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.

Those rising 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 Nov. 1.

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. ABCD 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.

“Cold homes run many risks,” Hernández said. “I’m pretty concerned about the fact that there will be more people experiencing challenges meeting their heating needs.”

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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 29-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 theutilitydebt 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.

But other payments take precedence.

“I have to pay my mortgage. I have to pay my car insurance because I have to drive (my son) to the doctor,” she said. “It’s very difficult, especially for those that are low-income families like myself.”

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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. “There’s no doubt that today Europe has its eyes very, very firmly focused on energy independence in a completely different way that we have before.”

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 NEADA.

Acknowledging the growing challenge of summer heat, the federal funds formally known as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) 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 LIHEAP 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 LIHEAP 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.

Typically spending about $3.8 billion annually, the program got a $4.5 billion boost last year through the American Rescue Plan, and then Congress and the Biden administration provided an additional $1 billion through mid-December 2022.

Federal funding for LIHEAP 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 President Biden to increase funding for federal fuel assistance.

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

NEADA estimates heating costs will be up almost 18% this winter compared with last year and up 36% since the winter of 2020. 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 has lived in the same San Francisco Bay Area home for 75 years. Built in 1949 right after World War II helped power a massive nationwide housing boom, her 1,500-square-foot home originally had two bedrooms and a bath.

Bought for $10,000, the house is now worth nearly $1 million, according to real estate records. But Ritchie’s property taxes have doubled in 20 years, and she lives off her Social Security checks. Like many Americans, she’s increasingly squeezed between bills and inflation.

“I just love, love, love this house,” she said. “It means everything to me.”

This summer when her furnace blew, she worried about paying thousands of dollars for a new one while keeping current on the rest of her bills. Using LIHEAP money, the Alameda County-based Spectrum Community Services replaced the furnace and some ducts and insulated the floors. Spectrum also provided her with $556 for her utility bills.

While thankful for the assistance, Ritchie worries about others who might need even more help — she’s lucky, she says, that she has a house and good enough credit to borrow money if necessary.

“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.”

“This is a population I call the new low-income, because after they pay all of their bills they don’t have money for electricity,” she said. “There’s no money left. And there’s no benefits for them.”

Unpaid heat causes other problems

In Colorado’s high country, where the first significant snowfall of the season happened Sunday, the Summit Family & Intercultural Resource Center is bracing for a significant increase in requests for utility assistance. Center officialsworry that people facing higher energy bills will turn down their heat to save money, causing pipes to burst.

“It gets incredibly cold here, and most folks have children living at home, so it can be very dangerous,” said Executive Director Brianne Snow. “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.”

She added: “The families we help are already struggling, so any sort of increase sets them back pretty considerably. We are really bracing because all of these things together are going to devastate people’s budgets.”

Back in Longmont, Stark remains thankful for the heating assistance and worries about her furnace. But she’s also quick to crack a joke at her own expense: whether she or the furnace will expire first.

Still, she’s cautious about her money, and asks her neighbor to buy her bread when it goes on sale. She’s also buying tougher cuts of steak. She 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: Americans prepare for heating costs this winter as utilities rise

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