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Energy insecurity is a real concern for many poor families

Harold Mandel's picture
Poor kids

There are families in the United States who are living in fear of freezing or sweating to death in their own homes. This sounds like a nightmare from some type of horror story, but it happens to be a fact of life for many Americans in a nation where the distribution of opportunities and wealth has never been more pathetic.

In this tech revolution era where billionaires are being made overnight, the glitter of the excitement from all of this is being lost among a new generation of poverty stricken Americans. Far too many poor Americans were never given a fair chance to become a part of the extreme financial rewards for some people associated with the high tech era. At this moment the poor are fighting to find enough money to simply eat and heat and cool their homes, if they have homes, on a daily basis.

Energy insecurity (EI) is defined as being a reflection of an inability to adequately meet basic household heating, cooling, and energy needs, reports the National Center for Children in Poverty.
EI has become a pervasive and often ignored problem for low-income families who have children. From a conceptual perspective EI is a problem with a multi-dimensional construct which describes the interplay which exists between structural conditions of housing and the costs of household energy. EI is characterized by three primary elements, which include:

1: Physical EI – deficient and inefficient housing structures

2: Economic EI – disproportionate share of household income allocated to utility expenses

3: Coping EI – energy-related coping strategies that could potentially compromise the quality of the home environment and have negative consequences on health

The extreme relevance of EI is indicated by the fact that poor families are more likely than wealthy families to:

1: Live in housing with heating and electrical problems

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2: Have experienced multiple heating equipment breakdowns

3: Have had an interruption in utility service

4: Have inadequate insulation and insufficient heating capacity

5: Report being uncomfortably cold for more than 24 hours during the winter months

Due to these factors energy costs paradoxically are generally comparatively higher for lower-income families, therefore lowering their ability to purchase other basic necessities of life such as food. This often creates what is known as the “heat or eat” dilemma.

This winter with many regions of the United States having been confronted with an unprecedented cold snap, the problem of energy insecurity has continued to go unreported despite its toll on the most vulnerable segments of our society, reports Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The researchers have noted that government programs aimed at addressing energy insecurity have been coming up short, in spite of rising energy costs.

The proportion of household energy expenditures relative to household income is used to measure Energy Insecurity (EI). Poor families are more likely to experience EI because they generally live in housing that has not benefited from the structural improvements which wealthier Americans can afford. Yumiko Aratani, PhD, acting director for health/mental health at Columbia Mailman School's National Center for Children in Poverty, has said, “While economic energy insecurity is experienced across the spectrum, it disproportionately affects those who are poorest, who are nearest the poverty line.” It is hoped that a raised awareness of energy insecurity will compel policy makers to study this problem in more depth and take steps to lessen its affects.

The researchers have noted that primary safety net program for EI, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), covers only a small fraction of the need which exists. It was estimated 10-15 million homes were eligible for benefits in 2012, and yet just a mere 5.5 million were actually served. This is partially due to a lack of awareness that the program exists. The program is also suffering due to a lack of better funding in spite of rising energy prices. In fact the program suffered a $1.2 billion budget cut during the years 2011-2013.

It has been my experience that both hypothermia from over exposure to extremely cold temperatures and hyperthermia from over exposure to extremely hot temperatures are dangerous health conditions which can be fatal. This coupled with malnutrition which is often experienced in poor families lessens the chances of survival from Energy insecurity even more.

It is a national disgrace that Americans are dying from these problems and living in fear of dying from these problems. The time for everyone to begin to feel and act to help alleviate the pain and suffering and premature deaths associated with these problems is right now. More Americans need and deserve good jobs and enough money to care for themselves and their families. In the meantime the government simply has to try to help the needy survive.