Energy Drain: Low-Income Households Typically Pay a Higher Percentage of Income for Utilities

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor,” wrote novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Decades later, that’s still true: From paying more money every month in rent than you would for a mortgage to paying check-cashing fees because you don’t have a bank account, it’s still expensive to be poor. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is examining the high cost of poverty in a series of stories this year.

Retiree William M. Williams lives on Susquehanna Street in Homewood, in a three-bedroom house.

“This house gets real cold in the winter,” said Mr. Williams, who retired after working as a maintenance man and ironworker. “You can feel the drafts coming through the doorways. … More than likely, I need some insulation” in the attic, he said.

On this recent June day, there are several people in his home — from the basement to the attic and everywhere in between — testing safety and energy efficiency measures.

County real estate records show the house was built in 1900. Like many older homes in Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania, Mr. Williams’ house is considered “leaky” in terms of efficiency.

He invited nonprofit Conservation Consultants Inc., which is working to make home energy efficiency and health improvements in Homewood, to run a set of comprehensive safety and energy checks to see what changes should be made at his home.

‘Energy burden’

Low-income households often have a higher energy burden — meaning they pay a higher percentage of their income toward energy costs compared to higher income households.

They often live in less efficient housing and pay more per square foot on energy costs, according to a 2016 American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy report focused on utility costs in low-income communities.

The same report found a particularly high energy burden for low-income families in Pittsburgh, especially African-American families.

“This is really a big problem in Pittsburgh,” said Jeaneen Zappa, executive director at South Side-based CCI, a nonprofit aimed at helping families create healthier homes and “get energy smarter.”

“The overwhelming energy burden that low-income households face makes it extraordinarily difficult for them to pay for all of life’s necessities, including energy and utility costs, housing, food and medicine,” said Patrick Cicero, director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, a statewide organization that helps low-income utility consumers. “The assistance programs that utilities provide help mitigate this burden. But households even within these assistance programs pay far more than they can often afford to pay for home energy.”

The average annual income for Pennsylvanians participating in utility assistance programs, known as universal service programs, was $16,535 for electric customers and $15,750 for natural gas customers in 2016, according to data from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

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