Higher energy bills burden middle-income families, who often don’t qualify for aid

Stormy Johnson pays $800 a month to rent a three-bedroom house in Kingwood, West Virginia. Last winter, she paid almost that much for her utilities too: roughly $700 a month for gas and electric. 

When the bills first arrived, she was shocked. 

“During the summer months, even running like four air conditioners, my electric was no more than $150,” she said. “So, it was a significant jump.”

Even before her utility costs climbed last winter, Johnson never had quite enough money to get by. She’s a single mom, two of her three kids are still at home and her take-home pay as a student support specialist in the local public schools is just $2,200 a month. 

“I normally live shut-off notice to shut-off notice,” she said. 

But over the winter, for the first time, she wasn’t able to pay the bills in full before the shut-off date. She had to call and set up a payment plan, she said, “because it increased so much.”

Energy costs, like so much else, have risen significantly — 30% in the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And a growing number of people are struggling to keep up. 

For many low-income families, it’s always been hard to pay for heat, electricity and gas. But for middle-income families, energy is usually affordable. 

“That, right now, is not the case,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association

“The major problem is rising heating oil prices, rising gasoline prices, rising natural gas prices. Across the board, all major sources of energy — both for families’ homes and running their car — are up significantly.”

Experts generally say that energy costs should only take up about 6% of a household’s income. Right now, on average, middle-income families are spending twice that and low-income families are spending four times that, according to data from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. 

“The numbers are terrible,” Wolfe said. “I mean, they’re genuinely awful.”

“Some of the latest figures suggest that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all households in the U.S. are energy insecure,” said Diana Hernández, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. 

The issue is particularly acute in the South and for people of color. And it’s worse right now because the cost of everything else is going up too: food, rent, clothes. 

“This is not just about energy issues per se,” Hernández said. “When other costs also increase, it means that there’s less to be allocated to the utility bills.”

People living at or below 150% of the poverty line can apply for assistance through LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Congress more than doubled the amount of funding for LIHEAP for this year, but even so, there’s only enough to help about 1 in 5 eligible households. And with energy prices rising so much, a lot of people who are struggling don’t qualify — because they make too much money.

“There are not a lot of programs to help middle- and moderate-income,” said Tanya Jones, the director of energy assistance and community development at the nonprofit HeartShare Human Services. “And so they are struggling the most. Because after they pay their rent and then they buy food, they’re not eligible for any type of assistance.”

Each state has a different cutoff for LIHEAP. In West Virginia, where Stormy Johnson lives, a family of three making more than $29,939 a year before taxes doesn’t qualify. 

Johnson doesn’t qualify. “I’ve always said, I make too much to get any kind of help, but I don’t make enough to survive,” she said. 

It’s May, and Johnson is still paying off her winter utility bills. She’s also starting to worry about how she’s going to get through a hot, humid West Virginia summer.

“My kids have already asked me two weeks ago to put the air conditioners in, and I’m like, ‘Open the windows,’” she said. 

Her plan is to wait as long as she can before putting those window units in. But she knows that eventually she’ll have to. 

“It’s not the actual temperature that will get you in West Virginia, it’s the humidity,” Johnson said. “When it gets really hot and humid, it’s not even really safe to be outside for long periods of time. So it’s almost like air conditioners are a necessity.”

Those days haven’t arrived yet, but when they do, Johnson will put the air conditioners in and turn them on — and then figure out what to cut back so she can pay the bill. 

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