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The United States Needs a National Moratorium on Utility Shutoffs

A new report estimates that 76 million households will be vulnerable to utility shutoffs by next month. Congress needs to act now to stop these shutoffs — it's a matter of life and death.

A child is seen looking out a window during the coronavirus pandemic. (Darrian Traynor / Getty Images)

To an even greater extent than the 2008–9 financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the basic dysfunction that characterizes life in twenty-first-century America for all but the extraordinarily rich.

With much of the economy shut down and tens of millions suddenly unemployed last spring, Congress responded by sending out a one-off payment of $1,200. Thanks to a health care system built around the needs of corporate shareholders rather than helping the sick, many soon lost the insurance plans they had had before the virus hit. This state of affairs not being bleak enough on its own, senior figures in both parties started agitating for the value of meagre unemployment checks to be scaled back on the grounds that they were too generous and might discourage people from returning to work.

Between evictions, political stagnation, and the immiseration of millions who were faring poorly even before the crisis hit, America’s economy looks somehow more Dickensian with each passing week. And, as a new report predicts, it’s about to get much worse: tens of millions of homes may soon go dark, as people behind on their utility payments are subject to shutoffs.

Early in the pandemic, some thirty-two states passed local moratoriums preventing private utility companies from shutting off basic services like gas, electricity, and water. Many of these are set to expire soon or have expired already, potentially leaving millions of already vulnerable Americans without power.

The report, published by start-up company Carbon Switch, estimates that some 76 million households won’t be protected by shutoff moratoriums as of October 1. While it’s impossible to predict precisely how many Americans will actually lose their utilities, the report’s authors note that around 10 million of the affected households currently sit below the federal poverty line — with roughly 9.5 million people in the relevant states being unemployed.

Though a holistic national picture isn’t yet available, data from individual states offers alarming insight into how many Americans are already behind on their utility payments. According to a recent report from the government of Wisconsin, around 33 percent of customers were behind on their bills as of July (an increase of 21 percent from the previous year). Another, from the North Carolina Utilities Commission, shows that over a third of the state’s households are similarly late on payments. The same, or worse, is probably true throughout much of the country.

A 2017 report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found that black families are disproportionately affected by utility shutoffs, a pattern that appears to be repeating amid the ongoing pandemic. One recent survey from Indiana University, for example, found that black respondents in April and May were twice as likely as white respondents to report struggling with their energy bills.

Utility shutoffs are more than an inconvenience and pose a potentially serious risk to public health and safety. The report’s authors, for example, cite a 2018 case documented in the Phoenix New Times in which a seventy-two-year-old woman died of a heat-related illness after her energy company, Arizona Public Service, disconnected her power over a negative $176.84 payment balance.

Because power is so essential, even many able to catch up on their bills will do so by foregoing or cutting back on other necessities like food. With an unusual number of people currently indoors as a result of the virus, the possibility of accidents — particularly house fires triggered by candles or lamps knocked over in the dark — will be even greater than normal.

As Congress gets set to negotiate the next round of stimulus and pandemic relief, a national moratorium on utility shutoffs must be front and center alongside fresh cash payments and other supports. The alternative is nothing short of a national human disaster.