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The Cost of High Utility Bills Is Mental Health

A new study on energy insecurity looks at the impact of utility bills on low income families' mental and emotional health.
Image by yuko hirao via Stocksy

Many people experience the stress of meeting monthly financial responsibilities, trying hard to budget finances in order to pay their bills on time. For those with lower incomes, this stress is especially severe. If you can't afford to heat your home, safety and survival may feel uncertain, and there are often real, negative consequences to your health. New research shows that, for low income people and those living in poverty, routine utility bills have a serious impact on economic, physical, and behavioral health.


The study, "Understanding 'energy insecurity' and why it matters to health," was conducted by Diana Hernandez, an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Seventy-two people earning less than $32,000 annually participated in Hernandez's study; they were all the heads of their households, 76 percent were black or latino, and all but two of them were women.

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Hernandez conducted interviews in their homes, which gave her insight into the impact of unaffordable utility bills on their lives. "Families are allocating a disproportionate amount of household funds to pay for utilities that serve to heat, cool and fuel cooking, lighting refrigeration and other basic uses of natural gas and electricity," Hernandez tells Broadly. According to Hernandez, energy insecurity presents many serious problems to families that can compromise health and safety, "such as a lack of insulation, inefficient heating systems, and poor overall housing quality."

Hernandez says her research highlights how poverty and the inability to pay energy bills can lead to "disease and disadvantage." Though such bills are often taken for granted, they work in conjunction with other factors, like poor housing, to cause "adverse environmental, health and social consequences." The people in her study experienced extreme stress due to daunting utility bills, which "triggered mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression." On top of this, poor parents live knowing their inability to pay the bills may mean their family will go without heat or electricity. Scrutiny by the state piles onto this stress, with families who "felt judged by persistent surveillance on the part of child protective services," according to the study.


The women in this study were subjected to stress, anxiety and instability.

"I went into a depression, you know, 'cause I'm trying to show them my bill and everything and don't nobody ever have funds for me," one respondent in the study said.

This issue doesn't affect all people equally, it exists at the intersection of socioeconomic injustices in the United States. "Our research shows that African Americans across the economic spectrum are disproportionately affected by energy insecurity," Hernandez says, explaining that there is a form of segregation occurring in neighborhoods today. "Homes located in lower-income areas have not been renovated recently or in the most efficient manner, therefore many minority households are effectively paying more for less," she explains.

It is striking, but perhaps unsurprising, that 70 out of 72 of Hernandez's respondents were women. "The women in this study were subjected to stress, anxiety and instability," Hernandez says. "This affects them personally and also impacts their role of primary care-takers of children."

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Hernandez hopes her findings will inspire further research to understand and appreciate the role that energy insecurity plays in decreasing health and safety for families. As we move toward clean energy, she foresees low-income families being left behind, and hopes to centralize their need for energy solutions. "This is an addressable issue where existing tools can be expanded to more effectively alleviate the conditions and consequences of energy insecurity," Hernandez says.

More than anything, her research aims to provide a human face to a hidden issue. "My outlook on it is that, I want better for my children," one respondent said.