When most of us think about poverty and hunger, our minds direct us to the bare kitchen table or the empty refrigerator. Few of us would also imagine the thermostat turned to “off” or an electricity shut-off notice arriving in the mail. The reality is that America’s low-income families must struggle constantly to protect their children from multiple threats to their health and growth, of which energy insecurity can at times be the most immediately life-threatening. In “heat or eat” situations, families strive in vain for a safe balance between paying for food and paying for energy.
Energy insecurity occurs when there is limited or uncertain access to enough home energy to sustain a healthy and safe life in the geographic area where a household is located. Moderately energy insecure families have received a letter threatening utility shut-off in the last year. Severely energy insecure families have experienced an actual utility shut-off, at least one day with no energy for heating or cooling, or have used a cooking stove as a heating source in the last year.
Of the 29,471 families whose energy security has been surveyed in the Children’s HealthWatch sample, 27.1% are moderately or severely energy insecure.
In contrast, energy secure families are able to afford sufficient energy to sustain a healthy and safe life in the geographic area where they are located. Energy-secure households are able to obtain the energy needed to heat/cool their home, operate lighting, refrigeration and appliances while maintaining expenditures for other necessities (e.g. rent, food, clothing, transportation, child care, medical care, etc.).
Compared with infants and toddlers in households that were energy secure, those in households with moderate energy insecurity were:
- More than twice as likely to live in a food-insecure household
- 79% more likely to be child food insecure
- 34% more likely to be reported in fair or poor health
- 22% more likely to have been hospitalized since birth
Compared with infants and toddlers in households that were energy secure, those in households with severe energy insecurity were:
- More than three times as likely to live in a food-insecure household
- More than three times as likely to be child food insecure
- 36% more likely to be reported in fair or poor health
- 82% more likely to be at risk for developmental delays