Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE)
This project examines the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on energy insecurity among low-income U.S. households. Energy insecurity, which is when a household is unable to pay its energy bills, is a significant problem for low-income Americans, among other groups. In 2015, for example, approximately 14 million households reported that they had unpaid utility bills; 17 million had received a disconnect notice from a utility company; and 2 million were disconnected from the electric grid. When a household faces energy insecurity, the residents may engage in risky coping strategies, including financial decisions and dangerous household heating behaviors. Such households may also have to make difficult tradeoffs between energy and food, health services, or other necessities. The problem of household energy insecurity is likely to grow due to the economic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The results from this project include immediately salient information about the extent of energy insecurity among vulnerable U.S. households and reveal the ways in which affected people are coping with their energy costs through formal government assistance programs, social networks and connections, and other strategies. The results provide critical information to policymakers, utilities and electricity providers, nonprofit leaders, and other stakeholders that are designing and implementing the response to COVID-19.The researchers administer a four-wave panel survey of low-income U.S. households (i.e., income at or below 200% of the federal poverty line) to examine the prevalence of energy insecurity and the strategies that people are using to cope with additional material hardship generated by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel survey of a nationally-representative sample of low-income households begin during the early stages of displacement, and then re-interview study participants three times over the succeeding 12 months. The main objectives are to measure and evaluate whether: 1) households that are more sensitive to energy insecurity are already worse off, and if matters continue to worsen in subsequent periods as economic displacement continues; 2) households able to access financial assistance programs and social networks are better off than those that cannot; 3) households that suffer material hardship, and experience more severe energy insecurity, adopt more risky coping strategies; and 4) households with access to relief programs are less likely to cope through risky financial and behavioral decisions. The project provides new theoretical and empirical insights into energy insecurity in the U.S., building on the research team’s previous adaptation of the Vulnerability Scoping Diagram framework to conceptualize household energy insecurity. This framework, enhanced by insights from research on household decision-making during crises, provides theoretically-informed hypotheses about how household energy insecurity is likely to be affected by the economic displacement caused by the government response to COVID-19. The survey designed for this project will be the first panel study in the energy insecurity literature, enabling the researchers to measure key concepts over time at the individual level and capture baseline conditions during a period when insecurity is likely to be amplified by sudden material hardship. Moreover, the survey provides for the consideration of numerous types of sensitivity to policy-induced material hardship as well as measurement of both formal and informal coping strategies.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.