Let’s talk about utility shut-offs

NEW YORK - JUNE 10:  New Yorkers cool off with the help of a fire hyrdrant June 10, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Temperatures reached into the upper 90's again today during an early heat wave in the city.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
New Yorkers cool off with the help of a fire hydrant during a heat wave in the city. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

Are power and water a human right?

Three congressional Democrats think so — and they want Congress to enshrine that right in law. Progressive Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Jamaal Bowman of New York introduced a resolution Thursday that calls on lawmakers to ban utilities from shutting off water, heating, cooling and other essential services.

While the resolution would merely be a “sentiment” of Congress, its sponsors are hoping to highlight just how bad the crisis has become amid rising energy costs and the end of pandemic relief.

About 1 in 6 households in the U.S. — 20 million families — are behind on their utility bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, a coalition representing state governments.

From January to June of this year, households had their power shut off almost 440,000 times across 15 states that made their rates available, according to preliminary data collected by the Center for Biological Diversity. That’s a dramatic increase compared to last year’s rates, the environmental group found.

While some states and utilities stopped disconnecting power during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, those moratoriums started to expire just as the price of natural gas climbed. Families now owe about $16 billion in late utilities bills, double pre-pandemic levels, according to NEADA.

“In the richest country the world has ever known, it is an outrage that millions of Americans struggle with utility insecurity, substandard and dangerous services, and inhumane shutoffs,” Tlaib said in a statement.

While most states have laws that prevent utilities from shutting off services because of unpaid bills during the winter, fewer than half have similar measures for the summer. And as climate change continues to fuel longer and more intense heat waves, shut-offs are becoming increasingly dangerous.

At least 1,300 people die a year in the U.S. due to extreme heat, according to federal data. And a recent study found that from 2008 to 2017, each additional day over 90 degrees Fahrenheit led to seven more deaths per 10 million adults.

The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helps some families pay their power bills. While lawmakers have called for additional funding, the lion’s share of the program’s nearly $4 billion budget goes toward heating expenses. In fiscal 2019, only 8 percent of LIHEAP funds went toward cooling assistance.

Read the full article here.

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