REPORT: Utility Shut-Offs Disproportionately Impact Black Americans and the Poor

By Yessenia Funes Apr 03, 2017

The NAACP released a report Friday (March 31) that shows how low-income and Black communities are disproportionately impacted by utility company shut-off policies, especially as energy costs eat at larger portions of their income than their more affluent, White counterparts.

The 80-page document, “Lights Out in the Cold: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as if Human Rights Matter,” spotlights the countless deaths that have come out of utility shut-offs, many a result of faulty space heaters or fire-lit candles.

There’s a father in Maryland who brought in a generator to heat his home, not knowing it would release carbon monoxide and ultimately kill him and his seven children.  There’s also a 69-year-old man in Michigan who died from hypothermia just a few days after the utility disconnected his gas service.

The names and examples continue.

President Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program will only make things worse, per the NAACP. More than one million Black people would lose access—as would seven million others who rely on the program.

Though utilities may argue individuals are at fault for failing to pay their energy bill, the NAACP asserts that “poverty should not be a death sentence,” and utilities should take more responsibility for shutting off their power in the first place.

The report goes further to advocate for reforms that would make this issue about human rights and “energy justice,” which says all people have the right to safe and sustainable energy production, resilient energy infrastructure, affordable energy and uninterrupted energy service.

“Whether it is extremes in heat, extremes in cold, or the need for electricity to power life-saving devices like respirators or medicines requiring refrigeration, not to mention just providing light, electricity/heating/cooling is essential, not just for quality of life, but also for maintenance of life,” writes Jacqueline Patterson, NAACP environmental and climate justice program director, in the foreword.

And as climate change worsens these extremes—both in the winter and in the summer—access to power is essential in keeping families warm, cool and alive, the report emphasizes.

The document offers recommendations for utility commissioners, regulators, government agencies and researchers, most based off models in places like Oregon or Iowa. In short, the NAACP wants to see protections in place for vulnerable people who can’t afford to make payments on their energy bills, especially during the harshest seasons. This could be something as simple as offering shut-off notices in multiple languages. It can mean limiting shut-off times to between 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. so that customers can attempt to reconnect that same day.

Furthermore, the NAACP wants to see a shift in how the U.S. treats energy:

The policies and protections detailed in this report represent stop-gap measures to lessen harms wrought by a system that is predicated on amassing profits without regard to the impacts on people. In advancing energy justice, all individuals have the right to: safe, sustainable energy production; the resilient and updated energy infrastructure; affordable energy; and uninterrupted energy service. 134 The NAACP calls for the development of policies and utility structures that improve energy efficiency throughout the energy continuum, advance clean and renewable energy production, encourage and enable the development of distributed generation, and protect human life and wellbeing. We further call for a system that puts power in the hands of the people, literally and figuratively. These aspects are components of the larger utility system change that we must build.

Find the complete report here.