People resort to risky ways of keeping homes warm

More than half of all low-income households use coping strategies to reduce their energy bills that could lead to significant physical and financial risks, according to a new study.

Those strategies may include accruing debt, forgoing expenses on food, and using space heaters or ovens to warm their home.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research could have direct implications for public policy improvements, including modifications to the US Weatherization Assistance Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and state utility disconnection protections.

“We recognized at the start of the pandemic that households would be especially hard hit as they moved their personal, business, and school operations into their homes,” says Sanya Carley, professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

“We found that the riskiest coping strategies are used the most often. Less risky things, such as seeking financial help from the government or friends and family, are less common than taking on debt, warming one’s body with dangerous techniques, or forgoing other expenses.”

For the study, researchers used an original survey of low-income households conducted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, from June 2020 to May 2021. Many of those surveyed used multiple coping strategies. Households with vulnerable members, including young children or those who rely on electronic medical devices, and households living with deficient housing conditions were more likely to use a full range of coping strategies.

The coping strategies can include relatively safe behavioral changes, such as layering clothes, heating just one room of a house at a time, or sleeping multiple people to a bed. But they also can include risky and outright dangerous behaviors, including burning trash or sleeping near a lit fireplace.

Some people also use financial strategies, such as skipping bills until the threat of disconnection becomes too severe, paying down a portion of a bill—enough to stay connected without paying the entire bill—or borrowing money from financial institutions or friends.

The researchers, who are part of the Energy Justice Lab at Indiana University, are continuing to study the issue and developing tools to create better policy.

“We have been interviewing households who have faced utility disconnections to learn about their lived experiences,” says David Konisky, professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“We are also building a user-friendly dashboard that documents disconnections and disconnection protections. This tool will help policymakers and practitioners identify where there are particularly vulnerable populations and seek targeted solutions for them.”

Source: Indiana University

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