This Winter, Some Choose Between Warmth, Food, Health
by Catherine Komp

Winter in America's coldest climates may be idyllic and cozy in holiday movies and Christmas carols, but many of the nation'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.
Stephanie McMillan

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 - the highest level in twelve years - at least eight states predict they will run out of funds in the coming weeks, including New York, Indiana, Maryland and North Carolina.

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 Milwaukee'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 lose their food stamps. They'll lose their energy assistance."

Beyond Wisconsin
In Onondaga County 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 - Niagara Mohawk, which is now National Grid - 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, Poindexter'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 (The NewStandard) for comment on their winter utility disconnection policies.

Difficult Choices
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 Wisconsin'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 - like physical disabilities, mental incapacitation, or need of life support systems - 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 customers' 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.<

Pat Gowen, an organizer with Milwaukee's Welfare Warriors, 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."

Gowen'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 People'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?"

This is an excerpt from longer article originally published by The NewStandard, an independent, on-line news source. You can find the original article and more at their website:


Catherine is a Core Contributor to The NewStandard. She recently left Syracuse to work as an independent radio news producer and reporter in Richmond, Virginia and is the Media Section Editor for Clamor magazine ( This Winter, Some Choose Between Warmth, Food, Health Catherine Komp