Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Dec. 27, 2005 – Winter in Americaâ€™s coldest climates may be idyllic and cozy in holiday movies and Christmas carols, but many of the nationâ€™s poor weather the season in frigid and drafty homes, forced to make difficult choices between warmth and other necessities like food and health care.
Now, as energy prices rise and the poverty rate steadily advances, lawmakers have gone home for the holidays without approving additional emergency-heating funds for a winter predicted to be far costlier than any in recent memory. Republican lawmakers stripped an amendment to provide $2 billion in additional home-heating supplements from a military spending bill that passed the Senate last week.
In previous years, emergency heating assistance has already fallen short, and this winter promises to be especially icy for those without means to pay for warmth. As applications for help increase to 5.6 million â€“ the highest level in twelve years â€“ at least eight states predict they will run out of funds in the coming weeks, including New York, Indiana, Maryland and North Carolina.
The Long Road to Warmth
On a cold Milwaukee morning, the Marcia Coggs Human Services Center was bustling. People waited in long lines to apply for food stamps, child care and Medicare benefits. Between October and May, the Center also offers home-energy assistance, and the waiting room for that office was nearly full.
By the end of winter many people have accumulated thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
Hani Melko and Medardo Sanchez had been there for hours with their 4-year-old, a smiling, energetic boy with developmental disabilities. The family, which also includes a 9-year-old, lives off the approximately $1,000 a month Melko makes tending bar. Sanchez, a painter in warmer months, takes care of the children. Rent for the family's two-bedroom apartment is $625, and the bill for gas and electric in November was $150. That left them with about $200 pay for food, telephone bill and school supplies for the kids and for Melko, who is studying at community college to be a pharmacy technician.
"It's hard when you have a low income, and you have to go through a long process just to get [benefits]," said Melko. "I am working, and I am going to school. It's not like I accept anything for free."
This is the familyâ€™s third try for energy assistance. Earlier this year, the agency miscalculated their income and turned them away. Next, they went to a heating-assistance location near their working-class Milwaukee suburb, only to find they were in the wrong place.
Melko shuffled through a lap-full of receipts, copies of heat and electric bills, rental agreements, tax forms, bank statements and pay stubs, trying to assemble the complicated assortment of information required by her five-page application. Melko said she even brought her daughter's report card to prove children live in the house.
"It's a long process, and I have to take off work in order to [come here], and that makes it even worse, because I'm losing hours on my job just to get some help," said Melko.
She did not light her gas heater until November, and at night she woke to run water in the kitchen and bathroom to keep the pipes from freezing. Despite these measures, Poindexterâ€™s November statement was almost $400.
Even if their application is accepted, their portion of the $93 million in state and federal heat assistance available to Wisconsin residents will likely only make a small dent in their bills. The program has about enough money to provide each person living in poverty with one $150 subsidy this year. Thatâ€™s equal to the average November utility bill for a two-bedroom Wisconsin home â€“ before frigid December temperatures dropped below freezing during the day and below zero at night.
Adele McCrank, a retired resident of Milwaukeeâ€™s north side, said she received only $296 in heating assistance this year, down from $815 last year. McCrank, who heats her five-room home by oil, said last year the cost of staying warm was about $315 a month. This year, after hearing about price increases, she lowered her thermostat from 68 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit to keep the costs down.
"It's a little too cold, but I'll live with it," she said.Pat Gowens, an organizer with Milwaukee's Welfare Warriors, said she cannot afford to properly heat either her own home or office. Gowens earns about $600 month and said she keeps her home thermostat at 55 degrees. The Warriors are an advocacy group for mothers and children living in poverty.
"For some reason, the constant cold has affected my back, which is now constantly hurting me. I think it is from tensing up so much," said Gowens. "I also find that I only infrequently manage to do cleaning or dishes since I'd rather cuddle up wrapped in a shawl by the tiny heater I turn on while I am eating."
Wisconsin, like many states, has a "winter moratorium" to prevent utility companies from disconnecting customers from November 1 to April 15. During this period, many families spend their meager paychecks on rent, food, medical bills, or clothes instead of on heat.
Amy Stear, an organizer with Milwaukeeâ€™s 9 to 5, a chapter of the National Association of Working Women, said that by the end of winter many people have accumulated thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
"The problem with this is that you can't file bankruptcy over and over again," she said. "So people got rid of their big bill with the bankruptcy filing, but then they're going to be back in the same situation again because the bills are not going to get better, [and] their houses are not going to get less drafty."
Social workers and residents also attest to another problem with heating assistance: being turned down when they are just dollars over the income limit, which in Milwaukee County is $28,275 for a family of four.
Mildred Navedo, an organizer with 9 to 5, said these strict guidelines force the working poor to make tough decisions."We know of a lot of women who can't even afford to get a ten-cent raise or they'll lose their subsidy," said Navedo. "They're right on the line. They'll loose their food stamps. They'll loose their energy assistance."
In Onondaga County, New York, where winter can bring nearly 200 inches of snow and weeks of below-freezing temperatures, residents are projected to pay an average increase of about $467 to heat their homes this season. Because of the increased demand for heating assistance, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) projects that New York will stop accepting applications for heat assistance by the end of January.
Louise Poindexter, a Syracuse resident in her sixties, knows the perils of coming up short on the utility bill. Her provider â€“ Niagara Mohawk, which is now National Grid â€“ once shut off her electricity and heat in retaliation for a $120 shortfall.
Poindexter, who lives on a fixed income of about $1,100 per month, said she took measures early this year to keep bills down: She did not light her gas heater until November, and at night she woke to run water in the kitchen and bathroom to keep the pipes from freezing. Despite these measures, Poindexterâ€™s November statement was almost $400.
"I usually get caught up [on utility payments] by summer, and this time it took me all the way until the end of September to catch up," she said. "Generally, during July, August, and September, I save up, and that helps me get through the first couple months [of winter]. I don't know what's going to happen this year; I didn't even get a chance to save."
Poindexter and members of Syracuse United Neighbors, a community advocacy organization, recently protested the high costs of heat in front of the local offices of US Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. They demanded increased federal, state, and local funds for heating assistance, a "neighborhood fuel fund" to help families pay their bills, and a task force to reduce the number of utility shut-offs.
National Grid did not return calls from TNS for comment on their winter utility disconnection policies.
Last fall, NEADA released the results of a survey of about 1,100 low-income heating-assistance recipients. The group found that to pay for energy costs, 32 percent of surveyed families sacrificed medical care, 24 percent failed to make a rent or mortgage payment, and 20 percent went without food for at least a day.
Additionally, more than one-quarter of respondents paid more than $2,000 on home energy annually; nearly half had someone in their home with asthma, emphysema, heart disease or stroke; and about a third said companies threatened to disconnect their electricity or heat service.
In recent years, many states have enacted winter moratoriums like Wisconsinâ€™s after utility shut-offs led to hypothermia deaths and fatal kerosene-heater fires. Many states in the Midwest and Northeast ban disconnection of utilities during winter months for households with low-income individuals, seniors, children, veterans or people with medical conditions.
But a few states do not have these protections, according to a list of disconnection policies compiled by the federal department of Health and Human Services. New York only prohibits utilities from cutting gas and electric lines for a two-week period around Christmas and New Years Day, and companies are only required to give 72 hours notice before shutting off service. People who can prove they have serious medical conditions â€“ like physical disabilities, mental incapacitation, or need of life support systems â€“ are eligible for just two 30-day reprieves from the threat of disconnection.
Some companies, including New York State Electric and Gas, will reconnect or continue service for low-income residents if they set up a payment plan. However, customers must make payments on their overdue balances as well as current bills in order to avoid losing their utilities.
A Right to Warmth
While customersâ€™ bills are rising, so are the salaries of top executives. Between 1997 and 2004, compensation for CEOs at Wisconsin utility companies increased between 73 and 450 percent, according to the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, a consumer advocacy organization. During this period, rates paid by customers increased approximately 30 percent.
Gowen, in Milwaukee, expressed frustration about the lack of competition among utility providers, and the monopoly some companies have over gas and electric services. She said she does not believe private companies consider the poor when developing their policies, and instead "gouge the people for ever-larger profits."
Gowenâ€™s distrust of WE Energies, the only company providing gas and electric services to her area, is reinforced by reports of price gouging in other states. In Illinois, a judge recently ruled that Peopleâ€™s Gas overcharged residents $118 million in 2000-2001. Price gouging by utility companies in California related to the Enron scandal during 2000-2001 led to about $2.1 billion in refunds to customers after years of litigation.
Though many people will struggle with the high cost of utilities for years to come, 9 to 5 volunteer Doris Gillisie believes a more equitable system is possible. She wants to see a sliding scale of utility fees for low-income residents. "No one should have to sacrifice medicine in order to be warm," she said. "They're warm in their big, comfortable houses. How come the poor person or less fortunate can't be comfortable in their little houses?"