Blackout On Utility Shut-offs Shows The Media Is Not “Liberal”
By Jacqueline S. Homan
There is a media blackout on the unaffordable utilities crisis precipitated by conservative social and economic policy. This crisis was 30 years in the making and much of today’s economic pain is the result of deregulation of Big Business — including utility companies. Under the watch of former President George W. Bush, utilities across the US were deregulated resulting in the removal of many public protections at the state level, such as rate caps to curb price-gouging, cuts to LIHEAP funding, unfair rate-tiering schemes that charge the poor 35-50% more for basic utilities than those with higher incomes, and the removal of winter moratoriums on shut-offs.
Over 5 million US households have suffered utility shut-offs for inability to afford basic life-sustaining utilities because of being priced out since 2005 by skyrocketing gas and electric rates. The largest shareholders of these utility companies are British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. As of 2005, over 60 million Americans struggled to live on less than $7 a day according to 2004 reports from the US Census records and the US Department of Health & Human Services. Media has ignored the mounting crisis for the past several years of poor households that have been left in the dark and out in the cold in a country that pledged to “leave no child behind.”
In February 2009, the Erie Times ran an article denying the severity and frequency of utility shut-offs and the impact on northwestern Pennsylvania residents. The article cited PR spin doctors for National Fuel— the gas utility that serves northwestern Pennsylvania, including Erie, half of whose population struggles to live on less than $20,000 a year. National Fuel spokesmen claimed that National Fuel does not shut off service to vulnerable low-income payment-troubled customers and added that “there is plenty of help out there” for those unable to afford their utility bills, citing LIHEAP, the Greater Erie Community Action Committee (GECAC), and its own LIRA plan which discounts gas bills by a miserly amount at the discretion of the utility company. National Fuel also claimed that it does not shut off utilities for low-income people with medical problems, if they provide the company with a letter from a doctor. In reality, very few of the region’s doctors who accept patients on Medicaid are willing to provide such letters for poor disabled or elderly adults.
GECAC is the main Erie social agency charged with dispensing help with utility bills through the CAP program, the Neighbor-For-Neighbor Fund, and weatherization assistance for low-income homeowners. They always run out of funds, leaving many otherwise eligible applicants—the elderly and disabled, families with children, and poor adults—without any help. But no one is talking about those who are turned away.
Local and national news media whitewash the reports of house fires across the nation that are directly related to utility shutoffs from unaffordable rates and a lack of adequate help. Winter house fires are reported as being caused by kerosene heaters and the absence of smoke detectors, not the lack of utility service.
According to the head of the Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Office, Sonny Popowski, a survey of LIHEAP recipients by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association in September 2005 (a few weeks after the post-Katrina rate hikes) revealed that:
- 73 % of the respondents had reduced expenses for household necessities because they did not have enough money to pay their utility bills.
- 19% reported that they kept their homes at temperatures that were unsafe or unhealthy due to unaffordable utility bills.
- 24 % indicated that they used their stove or oven to provide heat.
- 20% said that they went without food for at least one day per month in an effort to avoid shutoff.
This scenario has gotten far worse since 2005. Deregulation put the fox in charge of the chicken coop. Many gas and electric utility companies across the US collect billions of taxes from their customers for the utilities’ corporate taxes – which they keep instead of sending in to the government. Surprisingly, this is legal in most states (including Pennsylvania). Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch explained in 2006:
“Essentially, the utility ratepayers pay the tax twice, once through the utility bill and again through the lost revenue to government that means either higher taxes for them or less government services.”
It’s time to stop depicting economic cannibals as superstar celebrities. In order to accomplish this, the media would have to be half as liberal as conservative pundits claim. Liberal media would aim more scrutiny at “pro-life” lawmakers like Michigan’s Bart Stupak — who should donate his PAC gift of $12,000 from Michigan’s DTE Energy towards a real pro-life fund to pay utility bills for poor seniors like Marvin Shur, a 93 year old World War II vet who froze to death in his home after his electric was cut off, and for poor women like Sylvia Young of Detroit who lost three of her seven children in a deadly house fire on March 2, 2010 that erupted within hours after pleading with a DTE worker to not shut off her gas. We could name it the “No American Left Behind Fund.”
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