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According to a new report from the NAACP, "Out in the Cold", utility company shut off policies disproportionately impact low income and African American communities, literally leaving thousands in the dark, stranded in the cold during winter or severely impacted by sweltering summer temperatures. (Photo: NAACP)
Published: 12 April 2017

BALTIMORE, MD – According to a new report from the NAACP, utility company shut off policies disproportionately impact low-income and African American communities, literally leaving thousands in the dark, stranded in the cold during winter or severely impacted by sweltering summer temperatures.

With 2016 on record as the hottest year to date, and January of this year documented as the 3rd hottest January on record, many are looking at the coming summer and winter months with fear and dread regarding the potential for utility shut-offs, that leave a disproportionate number of African American and poor communities in the dark and out in the cold.

“The life-threatening fact that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, means climate change and global warming are painful household realities for those whose heat, air-conditioning and power are shut off. Dangerous and unnecessary shut offs in the sweltering heat and frigid cold disproportionately impact low-income, the elderly and communities of color,” said NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks.

“The measure of our great nation is not unreasoned and unrestrained profitability but rather reasoned solutions and unrestrained compassion for vulnerable populations. This report is inspired by such compassion and offers such solutions,” emphasized Brooks.

The report issued by the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program (ECJP) shows lower income communities spend a greater portion of income on electricity and heating costs than high-income communities. African Americans are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-African Americans and spend a significantly higher fraction of their household income on electricity and heating as non-African Americans, who spend more on energy used in the production and consumption of goods.

Since African Americans make up a higher percentage of low-income households, their vulnerability to high energy prices and in turn utility disconnections is exacerbated at levels disproportionate to other groups due to rate hikes or swings in weather.


The NAACP’s ECJP in analyzing state policies concerning utility shut-offs, showed:

  • customers with limited income bear a disproportionate burden of energy bills;
  • disconnections have a disparate impact on low-income communities and communities of color;
  • customers may be reliant on utility services for medical devices and life-supporting systems;
  • vulnerable customers' use of hazardous heating, cooling, and lighting measures can have harmful and even fatal results.


NAACP ECJP also highlights the inconsistencies in state shut-off polices, which makes it tougher to implement national utility reforms.


States and the District of Columbia are uniform only in the fact that all are required to send out disconnection notices, yet:

  • 7 states offer no payment plans to cure delinquency
  • 8 states have no medical protection policies on affecting disconnection of services
  • 11 states have no disconnection limitation polices
  • 14 states have no date-based protection policies. Date based – set specific dates of when customers cannot without due diligence be disconnected from a utility service;
  • 28 states have no temperature-based policies: Meaning regardless of how cold it becomes, utilities can be shut-off
  • 11 states have no disconnection limitations
  • 36 states have reconnection fees

These inconsistencies in consumer protections result in thousands of individuals and families each year ending up with no heat or power in their homes during the worst of times.

Unfortunately, these numbers are slated to expand tremendously due to President Donald Trump’s proposed elimination of the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The elimination of LIHEAP would disparately impact over a million African Americans, and nearly 7 million Americans who utilize LIHEAP.


Model State Policies

In Oregon, a utility must provide a written notice by mail or delivery at least fifteen days before the scheduled disconnection.100 A second notice must then be mailed or delivered five days before the scheduled disconnection.

The utility must attempt to make personal contact with the customer immediately before the disconnection, and if this attempt is unsuccessful, the utility must post a notice at the customer’s residence. 102 Additionally, Oregon requires special notice protections following a disconnection when a utility is able to disconnect a customer remotely without making personal contact.


Climate Nexus

“Caught between a rock and a hard place, low-income families across the country are often faced with tough choices between putting food on the table, paying for medicine and lighting and/or heating their homes.” said Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. “In researching this report, we’ve seen too many cases where poverty ends up being a death sentence when circumstances result in fatally perilous choices.”

For Arizona native Amy Mays whose struggles with utility shut-off and path to energy independence are profiled in the report, new policies are needed immediately.

“We need these solutions sooner rather than later, because climate change is going to make these issues worse. Extreme weather events, like dangerously hot and cold days, are projected to increase as a result of climate change – stretching ratepayer’s pockets and putting them at even greater risk if their power is shut off. ”

The amount owed by low-income customers for unpaid utilities often has a minimal impact on company finances.


NAACP Solutions

According to the NAACP, there are several solutions that can implemented by states and utilities to begin to decrease the impact of shut-offs among poor and communities of color. The solution strategy begins with the establishment of a universal right to uninterrupted energy service, which would ensure that provisions are in place to prevent utility disconnection due to non-payment and arrearages.

The NAACP ECJP also calls for a moratorium on utility shut-offs and calls for utility companies to incorporate a basic set of principles into their policies including:

  • Secure ACCESS to utility services for all households
  • INCLUSION of all customers in the development of utility policies and regulations
  • TRANSPARENCY of the actions of and information held by utility companies, regulating bodies; legislatures, and utility affiliated organizations
  • PROTECTION of the human and civil rights of all customers
  • Advance programs that help ELIMINATE POVERTY, so that all customers can pay utility bills

“We can create more humane policies but it will involve a greater number of activists and individuals from communities disparately affected by cut-off policies,” said Jacqui Patterson. “Through directly engaging elected officials, utility companies and local legislators, we can get the type of solutions listed in the report passed into law, and in doing so change this nation for the better” she added.


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