As Colorado's Living Costs Climb, The Poor Struggle To Cover The Gap For Utility Bills
As Lea Anne Shellberg knows, spring can be a difficult time. It's when the winter power bills start piling up. A broken back and a recurring skin cancer battle ended her career as an interior designer. When I first tried arranging an interview, she was in trouble.
"This is gonna be fun," she said, "we're literally going to be sitting in the dark."
Despite Shellberg and her daughter taking extra care to keep lights off and appliances unplugged, the charges for the last two months at her modular home were unexpectedly high, $470. With a fixed and razor-thin budget, she couldn't pay the bill.
When it comes to covering utility costs, the poor are paying more than they can afford and energy assistance programs are struggling to keep pace.
A common benchmark establishes paying 6 percent of one's income for utilities as "affordable."
Since 2003, economist Roger Colton's Massachusetts-based firm, Fisher Sheehan & Colton, has been combining income data from the U.S. Census with bill estimates to determine how much low income Americans are actually spending over that benchmarked 6 percent. He calls that the Home Energy Affordability Gap. Colton projects that gap for those near or below the federal poverty line in 2015 to be $40 billion alone.
The government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program provides the largest source of funding in the nation to help the poor with power bills, $3.39 billion in 2015. Most of that funding goes to home heating costs. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates only 22 percent of those eligible for LIHEAP assistance receive it.
"It's just a huge problem," said Skip Arnold of Energy Outreach Colorado, a nonprofit which provides millions in assistance annually to help low-income households pay energy bills. Organizations like Arnold's help further close the affordability gap, but he admits he runs out of money every year without getting close to meeting the demand. So, many at the bottom continue spending 25 to 30 percent of their income or more to pay utilities.
"The chunk of 30 percent of their total income leaves precious little for anything else," Arnold said.
Lea Anne Shellberg's winter utility costs ran nearly 15 percent of her income, more than twice what economists like Colton consider sustainable. She chose to pay a medical bill for her cancer treatment ahead of what she owed her utility, Poudre Valley REA.
Energy Outreach Colorado only provides assistance once a year; she went to them in the previous summer. Desperate, and with her service about to be shut off, she went to Poudre Valley REA's offices where, as Shellberg recalled, an employee named Kimberly paid the first $100 to reopen her account.
"And I sat there and cried, because she knew that I didn't have all the money," Shellberg said.
PVREA has since switched her to a program to pre-pay for electricity as she tries to slowly take care of those old bills. It's working for now, but it's a hard reality she's faced with everyday -- utility bills aren't the ones you skip.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.