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Unemployed, But 'Hopeful': How Struggling Families Are Navigating Rent, Utility Bills Piling Up

Young woman sitting on the sofa, looking at her bills. (Getty Images)
Young woman sitting on the sofa, looking at her bills. (Getty Images)

Several states have had moratoriums in place during the pandemic that prevent utilities from shutting off service to customers who cannot pay.

However, many of those moratoriums are ending, leaving tens of millions of people at risk of service shutdowns in the winter months. And even if their service does continue, customers are piling up debt on past bills without much relief.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, says the association is “very concerned” about heating costs as cold weather takes hold in many parts of the country.

“We’re estimating that many families owe close to $800 now on the utility bills. And by the end of winter, that could rise up to $1,700,” he says. “So at the end of March, since all signs point to a continuing weak economy, there could be millions of families owing more than a year’s worth of energy bills.”

Right now, the association estimates there is $24 billion in debt that families haven’t been able to pay during the coronavirus pandemic, he says. He predicts by March, that number could nearly double.

He says the government needs to start thinking about how to relieve the burden of energy bills hanging over Americans’ heads as they try to get back on their feet.

“We have to think through a solution so they [can] get back to work and not have to worry about bills associated with the pandemic,” he says.

Wolfe works with state directors who are participating in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides assistance to people who are struggling to pay their utility bills. He says the program reaches about 6 to 7 million families per year.

Congress provided the program additional funding — $900 million — in the first stimulus bill, but Wolfe says more is needed. They are asking for an additional $10 billion to cover the need, he says.

The second coronavirus stimulus package, which passed in the House but failed to make it through the full Congress, was going to provide $4.5 billion in funding. “That would have helped a lot,” Wolfe says.

Getting people back to a place where they can pay their utility bills is a solvable problem, Wolfe says. He argues the concept behind the Paycheck Protection Program, which helped small businesses by issuing forgivable loans, can be applied to utility debt.

Repayment plans from utility companies are “great if you have a job,” he says. But these families in need are still unemployed.

“So what’s the choice?” he says. “You let them keep going up debt and then once they have a job, they can’t ever get out of that debt.”

Cynthia Carter of Chicago is one of millions of unemployed Americans struggling to make ends meet. She’s been able to get some help from some energy assistance programs, but finances remain a major challenge.

Before the pandemic, Carter was juggling two jobs — helping her mother with her daycare business and working as a teacher for young children at a women’s shelter.

She was furloughed in July, and while she’s trying to remain optimistic, she says it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

“When you wake up in the morning, there’s like a heaviness on your chest,” she says. “So I go for walks … so stress and anxiety don’t override and just try to stay hopeful that things will eventually change.”

The financial assistance she’s received to help pay for gas and electricity has been a “tremendous help,” she says. Her landlord has also been understanding of her situation and she’s been able to delay paying rent since July.

“I’m staying hopeful,” she says. “I’m still waiting to receive an answer for the rent assistance program, but I know that there will be someone that God will use to help me to pull through.”

As the holiday season approaches, tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Here & Now wants to know — what are your experiences or frustrations with unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic? Tell us here

By emailing energyassistance@ncat.org, you will access the Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) Clearinghouse’s National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) project. NEAR is a free service funded by the Federal government for persons who want information on where to apply for the energy LIHEAP, which may pay a portion of the energy bills of eligible low-income persons. Please include your city, county and state in your email message. Or, call NEAR toll-free at 1-866-674-6327 or TTY 1-866-367-6228 for energy assistance referral.

Click here for the LIHEAP Map State and Territory Contact Listing


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.