For people who lost jobs or income during the pandemic, life has been a series of terrifying deadlines. There was July 24, the end of a federal eviction moratorium from government-backed housing, which had protected about one-third of renters. There was July 30, when a program providing an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits expired, reducing the incomes of tens of millions of Americans.
Now, the beginning of September looms as yet another deadline as utility companies resume cutting power to customers who have fallen behind on their bills. In some states, moratoriums preventing them from doing so are ending, and in other states, utility company pledges to keep customers connected are winding down. Residents in Ohio, Florida, Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois are all at risk of shutoffs in early September; shutoffs can resume in late September or October in North Carolina,Tennessee and Texas.
“We’re facing a tidal wave of terminations,” says Charlie Harak, senior attorney for energy and utilities issues at the National Consumer Law Center. Higher rates raise bills for everybody but would put a greater burden on low-income families, who devote three times as much of their income to energy costs as do higher-income households. A June survey of low-income households by researchers at Indiana University found that 22% of respondents had to forgo or reduce household needs like medicine or food to pay their energy bill; 4% of those surveyed had already had their service disconnected. People of color who have been hardest hit by the pandemic may also be the same people who lose their power because of non-payment, elevating their health risks.