September 5, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 302 — Coping strategies for energy-insecure households

When households can't afford their energy bills, they may engage in coping strategies that can introduce significant physical and financial risks, such as accruing debt, forgoing food purchases, and using space heaters or ovens to warm homes. According to a new study by Indiana University researchers, more than half of all low-income households in the United States engaged in coping strategies to reduce their energy bills. The research could have direct implications for public policy improvements, including modifications to the U.S. Weatherization Assistance Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and state utility disconnection protections. The study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. IU Professor Sanya Carley says the researchers recognized at the start of the pandemic that households would be especially hard hit as they moved their personal, business, and school operations into their homes. Carley says their study found that the riskiest coping strategies are used the most often. And less risky coping strategies, such as seeking financial help from the government or friends and family, are less common than taking on debt, warming one's body with dangerous techniques or forgoing other expenses. The study used an original survey of low-income households conducted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, from June 2020 to May 2021. Many of those surveyed used multiple coping strategies. Households with vulnerable members, including young children and people who rely on electronic medical devices, as well as households living with deficient housing conditions, were more likely to use a full range of coping strategies. The coping strategies can include relatively safe behaviors, such as layering clothes, heating just one room of a house at a time, or sleeping multiple people to a bed. But they also can include risky and dangerous behaviors, including burning trash or sleeping near a lit fireplace. Financial strategies can also be employed, such as skipping bills until the threat of disconnection becomes too severe, paying just enough of a bill to stay connected without paying the entire balance, or borrowing money from financial institutions or friends. The researchers, who are part of the Energy Justice Lab at IU, are continuing to study the issue and developing tools to create better policy, such as a dashboard that documents disconnections and disconnection protections to help policymakers and practitioners identify where particularly vulnerable populations are located and seek personalized solutions for them.