The Texas Freeze

Mark Wolfe, opinion contributor  

Americans watched helplessly as millions of families in Texas struggled in freezing temperatures without heat or running water. Losing these essential services can be life-threatening. However, that situation is all too familiar to millions of low-income families across the nation, who are struggling to pay their utility bills.

a train covered in snow: Utility trucks are lined up on a Texas road© Getty Images Utility trucks are lined up on a Texas road
The crisis we’ve all been watching in Texas is about to be replayed in households all around the country where people lost their jobs due to the pandemic and fell behind on their energy bills. When the moratoriums end, the bill has to get paid or the house loses heat. The difference is that this time the crisis is foreseeable and preventable.

It is absolutely critical that the president and Congress reach an agreement on pandemic relief legislation – because the need is legitimate, and we must bail out those families who have lost their income due to COVID-19.

By the end of December, low-income families owed their gas and electric utilities more than $27 billon, and Moody’s projected the combined rent and utilities debt to exceed $70 billion. By the end of March – when the winter heating season is over – the numbers will be even higher. We are hearing reports of individual households with unpaid bills upwards of $3,000.

Thankfully, there is a federal program to help people pay their electric bills, known as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Unfortunately, the funding that Congress has already provided for LIHEAP is sufficient to cover all the outstanding debts and help struggling families get back on their feet once the pandemic has ended. Without additional help, millions of families would have to enter into long-term repayment plans to continue their utility service, and this would delay their ability to recover. This is not to mention the people in Texas, who now have energy bills in the thousands of dollars.

My organization has been warning Congress about the impending crisis of people being behind on their utility bills and the limitation of shut-off moratoriums. At best, moratoriums are a band-aid that kicks the bill payment can down the road.

Thankfully, Congress is moving in the right direction to help families with their home energy bills – but more needs to be done. The FY 2021 stimulus bill under consideration in the House contains $4.5 billion for LIHEAP. These funds will help up to 5 million families pay off their utility debt. But it is not enough to prevent the tsunami of shut-offs that could occur as state moratoriums expire. That’s why we are asking for a minimum of $10 billion to help address the most immediate bill payment needs. That would allow us to cover about 25 percent of outstanding bills for low-income Americans. We believe that other funds provided in the stimulus bills for rental and mortgage assistance could also help to cover outstanding utility bills.

I cannot stress enough just how bad things are for millions of Americans on the low end of the income scale. According to a recent analysis of Census and other data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one in six households lacked sufficient food, one in five renters were behind on their rent payments, and one in three households had trouble paying their basic household expenses. And for minority households the numbers were even worse – about half of Black and Latino adults reported that they were struggling to pay their basic household expenses. So it shouldn’t be surprising the millions of families have fallen behind on their utility bills.

As Congress debates the COVID-19 relief legislation, I want to assure any members of the House or Senate who are hesitant to support additional energy assistance that there is a growing possibility that millions of low-income families will be shut-off from power beginning this month – and that $10 billion in funding for LIHEAP will prevent this needless suffering.

Congress can prevent millions of American families from ending up in the same position that Texans are now. Our leaders must act boldly and decisively, or Americans will die from a lack of basic services like heat and water.

Mark Wolfe is an energy economist who serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, representing state directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).