Report: Changes Needed To Lower Energy Costs For The Low-Income

High energy costs for lower income families can create a sharp inability to pay and can also lead to negative health outcomes, a study released Thursday by a policy organization stated.

It also issued calls for steps to provide further assistance to households to meet their needs and reduce financial strife.

The study from the Michigan League for Public Policy reported households of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level face an average shortfall of $1,315 annually between their energy costs and what they can afford to pay.

The report stated that prior to the coronavirus pandemic, utility bill assistance was one of the most common problems for which residents contacted the state's Michigan 2-1-1 helpline, which helps connect people with assistance for things including housing, food and bill payments.

Between the early months of the pandemic and May 1, 2021, the 2-1-1 program had received about 55,600 calls from individuals citing the need for help in paying their electric bills.

About 33 percent of household income for families in the state living below 50 percent of the federal poverty level goes to energy bills, the report stated. It was noted that housing is considered affordable when total housing costs, including that of utilities, combine to make up no more than 30 percent of household income.

In the report it stated there are programs to receive credits for winter heating bills, emergency relief for households facing imminent utility shutoff, assistance with budgeting and weatherization of homes to improve energy efficiency. The report stated these programs are often underfunded and there also are sometimes gaps in eligibility, leaving some residents to fall through the cracks.

"All families deserve affordable, safe homes, and energy bills stand in the way of that for many Michigan residents," Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, said in a statement following the release of the report. "And as with many problems our state faces, energy usage and efficiency shows racial disparities and inequities that impact physical and mental health, safety and financial stability."

Regarding disparities in housing, a 2018 Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance factsheet shows energy bills for renters in apartment building were on average 20 percent higher per square foot than in a single-family home. This, the report said, could lead to higher risk of eviction while also having less access to energy efficiency measures that could improve a renter's housing situation and lower their bills.

The report also referred to information from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All, stating that Black households in the country's largest metro areas have a 64 percent higher energy cost burden than white households. For Hispanic households it was 24 percent higher than white households.

Living in high-poverty neighborhoods can also reduce access to energy-efficient products such as light bulbs that could help rein in energy costs, the report stated.

In the report it was also said that poor housing quality, in addition to high energy costs, can contribute to common health problems such as asthma. Based on Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America data, the Detroit metro area, for example, has the eighth-highest asthma-related death rate. Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states more than 40 percent of Michigan children with asthma miss school or daycare because of their condition and more than 30 percent of Michigan adults miss work for asthma-related reasons.

"Energy efficiency and utility costs pose serious health risks and contribute to racial health disparities," Ms. Jacobs said. "These aren't only physical burdens, but can have negative impacts on education, employment and income. Heat and electricity are critical for a safe home, and energy use is imperative for personal hygiene, household cleanliness, food preparation and more."

The group outlined multiple recommendations for addressing the issues outlined in the report.

One recommendation is to expand utility shutoff protections to households with young children. Existing state law prohibits utilities from shutting off service during the heating season to customers 65 and older. The group suggested Michigan consider Massachusetts law which prevents utility shutoffs to families with children under 1 year old and in home where there are both older adults and minor children reside.

Providing more funding for home repairs that can improve public health and safety was also recommended. The report suggested supporting health and safety pilot programs involving utilities, landlords and other stakeholders. It was also recommended that home repairs should be a priority within community development block grant programs.

Another recommendation was for a pilot program to study the impact of energy efficiency improvements on housing stability, health outcomes and healthcare cost for Medicare enrollees.

Expanding income-based utility bills for low-income customers to prevent them from accumulating debts from falling behind on payments was also promoted.

This report was originally published at Gongwer News Service.