By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research
Energy insecurity is when households cannot pay for their energy utilities, and when they live in homes with poor energy conditions. Energy insecure people often participate in coping behaviors to compensate for their energy insecurity, such as living in unsafe temperatures, using dangerous alternative heating strategies which can cause fires, and/or going without food, medicine, health care or other necessities in order to pay energy bills. Since energy access impacts people’s health and quality of life, it is considered to be a social determinant of health.
Energy security can be especially important for people with disabilities who are more likely to rely on electronic medical equipment to live or electronic devices to communicate, have perishable medications, and/or have difficulties regulating their body temperatures without heating/cooling. For these reasons, the aim of this study was to examine the energy insecurity of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. To do so, we analyzed data from 450,000 people in the United States (the data were weighted to represent the United States population).
During the pandemic 51% of people with disabilities reduced or went without household necessities in order to pay their energy bills. In addition, 36% kept their homes at unsafe and unhealthy temperatures because of expenses. During the pandemic 38% of people with disabilities were unable to pay their energy bills. In fact, regardless of income, people with disabilities were twice as likely as nondisabled people to go without household necessities to pay energy bills, to keep their homes at unsafe/unhealthy temperatures, and to be unable to pay energy bills.
Energy Insecurity of People with Disabilities
There were also differences in energy insecurity among people with disabilities themselves based on disability type, age, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, education, marital status, household income, home type, home payment status, health insurance, household job loss, Child Tax Credit recipient, SNAP recipient, and household size. For example, the odds of people with disabilities with household incomes of less than $25,000 keeping their homes at unsafe/unhealthy temperatures was 244% higher than people with disabilities with household incomes of $200,000+. (See the full journal article for more information about sociodemographic differences.)
“It is also important to note that during this same time period of the pandemic in our study when people with disabilities were energy insecure, with 37% of people with disabilities keeping their homes at unsafe or unhealthy temperatures, there were a number of natural disasters and instances of extreme weather in the United States, including Texas winter storm Uri, the Pacific Northwest heat wave, and a series of ‘unprecedented’ fires in California, among others, which would have further increased people with disabilities’ need for electricity for heating/cooling, hindered air quality, and resulted in power outages. While extreme weather impacts the health and quality of life of everyone, for people with disabilities, the co-occurrence of energy insecurity and natural disasters can be especially dangerous and deadly… Energy justice demands everyone, including people with disabilities, have access to safe, affordable, and sustainable energy, during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond” (Friedman, 2022, p. 8).