Medicine or Electricity?

Americans Shouldn’t Have to Make the Choice

Low-income Americans are increasingly having to make tough choices as energy prices rise.

A woman pays for her groceries at a store in San Leandro, CA. As home energy and gasoline costs rise, more Americans are forced to cut spending on basic necessities such as food, with low-income families the most affected. (AP/Ben Margot)
A woman pays for her groceries at a store in San Leandro, CA. As home energy and gasoline costs rise, more Americans are forced to cut spending on basic necessities such as food, with low-income families the most affected. (AP/Ben Margot)

The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association released a new energy costs survey last week, and the report found that high energy prices are squeezing nearly all households nationwide, and low-income families and individuals are being hit the hardest.

Low-income households typically spend a greater percentage of their income on utilities than those in higher income brackets, and as prices rise, they are having to make increasingly difficult choices in order to keep the lights shining, the water flowing, and the stove running.

As home energy and gasoline prices increase, low-income households—defined as families of four with a yearly income below $32,604—are having to make serious cutbacks on basic necessities in order to make ends meet:

  • 31 percent of low-income households report maintaining unsafe or unhealthy home temperatures in order to lower energy bills.
  • 29 percent risked loss of home energy service due to skipped or partial payments.
  • 31 percent have reduced spending on medicine.
  • 70 percent have reduced spending on food.
  • 65 percent have lowered their purchases of other basic household necessities.

These cutbacks on necessities are not simple inconveniences. They are detrimental to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly, disabled, and children.

According to pediatric experts with the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program, babies can stop breathing if home temperatures are too cold. And efforts to reduce energy costs through space heaters, candles, or kerosene lamps can lead to increased risks of fire, burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning. What’s more, reductions in the amount of money spent on food can increase hunger, food insecurity, and lead to choosing cheaper and less healthy foods, jeopardizing children’s healthy growth and development.

The NEADA study also reveals that home energy or gasoline costs are forcing households to work more and save less. Fourteen percent of low-income households reported that a member had taken a second job to cope with rising costs. And households across all income levels report putting away less money for savings. More than 70 percent of low-income households also bought less expensive products, reduced clothing purchases, and cut back on driving.

Higher prices across the country are driving consumers to embrace energy conservation through home improvements and behavioral changes. Over 60 percent of low-income households report sealing up leaks in their homes to increase their energy efficiency. With summer approaching, families are also keeping shades closed during the day, running fans, and decreasing their use of air conditioning. Such changes may ultimately shrink the carbon footprint of American homes and reduce energy bills. However, care must be taken to ensure that the resulting behavior changes do not come at the expense of health and safety.

As low-income households continue to struggle the most with rising energy costs, we must find ways to help them cope with rising prices in the short term. This means investing in principal federal programs designed to help low-income American households manage energy costs: the Weatherization Assistance Program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. But with only 15 percent of eligible households receiving LIHEAP, inadequate funding continues to limit the ability of these programs to reach families in need.

Center for American Progress proposals for federal climate and energy policies outline these options and show how they can have a positive effect on the home energy bills of low- and middle-income households.

For more information on the Center’s policies on low-income families and energy policy, see:

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.