By Ana Swanson
The stresses of poverty in the United States have grown so intense that they are harming the health of lower-income Americans — even prematurely leading to their death.
A report published Monday by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution finds that stress levels have greatly increased for Americans at all income levels since the 1970s, but especially for low-income groups, as the chart below shows.Read more
More than 320,000 Connecticut households cannot afford to pay their utility bills. The latest Home Energy Affordability Gap study finds that these households, whose incomes are at or below 200% or less than the Federal Poverty Level, owe, on average, $1,241 more in annual energy bills than they can afford to pay. Programs such as Operation Fuel, which released the report, provide energy assistance to many households, but there is an enormous shortfall between the need and what these organizations can provide.
In order to keep their lights on, appliances functional, and homes warm, people often cut back on basic needs such as nutritious food, health costs and education related expenses. The stress from this "financial juggling" has a severe impact on the physical and mental health of families, which is especially acute for vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. Disconnection rates are sky high as shown in the latest data from UI shows that more than 7,000 ‘hardship’ households (those with financial difficulties), or 2.5% of all households that UI serves, had their electricity disconnected between May and November 2016 (the utilities are not permitted to disconnect such families during the winter months). This is up from 5,621 households during 2015.
When the worst happens and people’s electricity and/or gas are disconnected, or they are unable to keep their oil tanks full, they live in cold and darkness. Sometimes people use their stoves to heat their homes, risking carbon monoxide poisoning, or use candles for light with the attendant fire risk. In efforts to have their utilities turned back on, people may resort to high cost loans, such as ‘payday loans’, officially illegal in Connecticut but readily available online, or other costly forms of credit. Asset building support that helps people to build up an emergency fund, even as small as $500, could prevent some from falling behind on their utility bills, or finding themselves unable to pay a larger than usual bill.