In the study, investigators from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health reviewed the environmental, health, and social consequences associated with an inability to adequately meet basic household energy needs.
The study provides real-world examples of three dimensions of energy insecurity: economic, physical, and behavioral.
Investigators say the study is one of the first to examine how household utilities, which account for a large share of living expenses, are a critical measurement of material hardship.
Findings are published online in Social Science and Medicine.
“Utilities bills at $200 per month represent nearly 30 percent of household income for those at or near the federal poverty level making it a significant, and likely unaffordable, expense,” said lead author Diana Hernández, Ph.D., assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences.
“While participants often expressed an ethos of responsibly ‘paying the bills,’ many simply cannot afford the monthly utility payments and were often ‘playing catch up’ in a vicious economic cycle of prioritization and trade-offs, complicating the already fragile financial profiles of low-income ratepayers.”
Dr. Hernández conducted in-depth interviews with 72 low-income families from community health centers in the Boston area.
Participants included those reporting at least one housing hardship, ranging from housing affordability, to frequent moves, to hazardous housing conditions and income at or below $32,000, which equals 150 percent of the 2008 federal poverty level.
Heads of household ranged in age from 18 to 59, were mostly single mothers (97 percent), racial/ethnic minorities (47 percent African American; 29 percent Latino), with a high school education or higher (85 percent).
The majority received housing subsidies (65 percent). Participants reported a wide range of household energy expenditures per month, reaching as high as $650 at the height of the heating season.
“Energy insecurity is a term little understood,” said lead author Dr. Hernández, “In this analysis, participants described energy as a main source of hardship. Collectively the data conveyed a tale of economic adversity, inefficient building infrastructure, complex coping strategies, and limited options for assistance.”
Experts say the study is one of the first to examine the mental and social impact of not being able to pay utility bills. They discovered energy insecurity triggered mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Moreover, the constant threat of having the energy cut-off fueled parental fear and stigma. Parents felt judged by persistent surveillance on the part of child protective services and feared losing parenting privileges.
Moving represented a way out of the discomfort for some participants who expressed feelings of shame and a disruption of family life when living through a utility service disconnection.
“However, this coping strategy brings with it negative consequences, as residential instability spurs the loss of social network and institutional ties, which comes at a significant cost in terms of social capital,” observed Dr. Hernández.
Investigators also discovered the challenge in simply trying to pay the bills is worsened by the fact that many homes have poor quality heating and cooling systems. Also low income homes are often the victim of subpar building materials that can increase energy costs.
In response to these challenges, study participants often devised a variety of behavioral strategies to juggle expenses and cope with the physical and economic facets of energy insecurity.
Policies do exist to help Dr. Hernández also points to the current options to support affected populations such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Weatherization Assistance Progra.
“These programs have historically been underfunded and subject to budget cuts, particularly in recent years,” she said.
“Greater awareness of the dimensions of energy insecurity and accompanying advocacy may lead to more comprehensive policy measures to expand existing programs in order to ensure that the needs of low-income householders are better met.”