Empirical Exploration of the Three Dimensions of Energy Insecurity Among Urban Low–Income Communities: United States.

Author(s) Diana Hernández 1, Brennan Rhodes-Bratton2.
Affiliation(s) 1Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health , New York , United States, 2Department of Sociomedical Sciences , Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health , New York, United States.
Country - ies of focus United States
Relevant to the conference tracks Environment and Sustainability
Summary This study explores hardships associated with energy insecurity (EI), and introduces a framework based on three dimensions of EI that describes the experiences of low-income households in a major city in the Northeast, USA.
Background As energy prices rise in the United States and abroad, low-income families face a challenge to achieve consistent and affordable access to enough of the forms of energy needed to sustain a healthy and safe life compared to similar households in the region (Cook et al, 2008). The concept of energy insecurity does not have a universal definition or sufficient public awareness. This study aims to provide a deeper understanding of EI by introducing a framework grounded in the following three dimensions: inadequate housing conditions, disproportionate energy expenditure, and behavioural responses to energy inefficiencies. These respective conditions are defined as physical EI, economic EI and coping EI. Health risks associated with EI as well as the stress and anxiety it may cause, can restrict productivity for parents or children as manifested in days lost from work or school and thus potentially reduce household income and increase risk for cyclical poverty.
Objectives The aims of this research are twofold; first to explore the experience of energy insecurity (EI) among low-income families and second to propose a framework that explains EI through the three dimensions of physical EI, economic EI, and coping EI.
Methodology This study examines the challenges and strategies used to address energy insecurity (EI) among low-income households in Boston, Massachusetts. Specifically, it addresses the following research questions: (1) What physical housing challenges do families living in low-income communities face? (2) What economic challenges and trade-offs exist when energy burden is a persistent concern? (3) What strategies do families employ to cope with the hardships of EI? (4) What implications do both the challenges and strategies used to address them have on the well-being of families experiencing EI?
Study participants were parents recruited through community health centres that met criteria for the 10-question eligibility pre-screening survey. Eligible study participants included those with at least one self-reported housing hardship such as frequent moves and hazardous housing conditions, an income at or below 150 % of the 2008 poverty level ($21,000 for a household of 4) and residence in Dorchester, Massachusetts. This research primarily draws on 72 in-depth interviews with a parent or legal guardian of paediatric patients residing in Dorchester.The study sample is compromised of 70 female and 2 male heads of household ranging from 18 to 59 years old. Most of the respondents were single mothers of Black or Hispanic descent, U.S. citizens, held a high school education, earned less than $30,000 per year and many had housing subsidies.A thematic analytical technique was used to reveal the nature of EI circumstances and the corresponding approaches used to contend with related problems. The data analytical plan encompasses an iterative process to explore EI. The initial phase identified quotes from respondents that described managing utility bill payments. Review of these quotes pointed to an organization of EI based on the three dimensions of physical, economic and coping EI. The third phase of analysis produced a list of overarching themes that reflect the most common experiences of the tenants. Each of the emerging themes was categorized based on the definitions of physical, economic and coping EI. Then this list was refined after the entire list of utility quotes was reviewed a third time. Each quote was then reviewed and categorized by dimension. Lastly, the quotes were organized by the finalized themes for each dimension. The final analysis included 3 dimensions and 19 themes. Please see Table 1 in the attached documents for the complete list.
Results The data analysis exposed the presence of physical, economic, and coping energy insecurities, thus reinforcing the developed framework. The dimension of physical EI initially represented inadequate appliances, structural issues of the home and other needed repairs. The five themes that consistently evolved from respondents’ experiences, however, were as follows: Inadequate/inefficient heat/cooling systems including poor installation and non-functioning appliances; Improper connections of wiring or connectivity of utilities to multiple units; Landlord abuse of power and privileges; Structural infractions of building, e.g. Broken meter; and Seasonal variation impact on home conditions.The dimension of economic EI, which describes financial hardship associated with energy expenditures relative to income and other expenses, is also composed of five themes. These themes include insufficient funds and tenuous employment; energy burden; debt and arrearages; trade offs between basic needs of food, housing, and energy; billing issues such as double charges.The strategies used to manage physical and economic EI are examined in the third dimension of EI, coping and is comprised of nine themes that explain the consequences of EI and how respondents deal with the daily crisis of inadequate access to energy. Coping EI includes vigilance about expenditures and active energy conservation, which urge householders to sacrifice comfort and potentially safety in response to heating/cooling costs (e.g. using space heaters or ovens for heating). They also sought medical and legal recourse and negotiated with the utility companies.In regards to the consequences of EI, participants often reported symptoms of adverse mental health including depression, anxiety, stress, hopelessness, and a sense of defeat. The physical condition of asthma was also commonly reported. Moreover, families residing in homes with inadequate heating/cooling as well as broken appliances risk exposure to harmful temperatures as well as toxic substances in addition to absence from work and school due to EI-induced illnesses.EI was not the intended subject of research in this study. Instead, it was an emergent theme that surfaced in the analysis of the larger study on the role of legal services in mitigating the link between poor housing and poor health. Future studies should focus on EI as a source of hardship and a threat to health among vulnerable households in the U.S.
Conclusion Energy Insecurity is an underexplored but pertinent phenomenon in the US. Our findings suggest the EI has three main dimensions: inadequate housing conditions, disproportionate energy expenditure, and behavioural responses to energy inefficiencies. These respective conditions are defined as physical EI, economic EI and coping EI. Physical EI represents conditions such as drafts from windows/doors and holes/cracks in the walls, floors or ceilings that induce energy inefficiencies and reduce "tightness" in the home. These conditions, in turn, create difficulties in regulating home temperatures and produce vulnerabilities in a home’s physical infrastructure that provoke mould, moisture and dampness, and the presence of dust mites, vermin and air pollution- all established concomitants of asthma. The economic ratio represented as "low household income/high energy expenditures” is used by the Department of Energy in its estimates of US energy burden and in Europe to describe fuel poverty. However, this ratio fails to account for deficient housing structures that determine energy expenditures beyond basic patterns of consumption (i.e., inefficient appliances and single pane windows). Coping EI includes vigilance about expenditures, which urge householders to sacrifice comfort and potentially safety in response to heating/cooling costs (e.g. using space heaters or ovens for heating). Paradoxically, these practices may lead to higher utility bills compared to more efficient heating alternatives while also increasing exposure to indoor air pollutants. Health risks associated with EI as well as the stress and anxiety, can restrict productivity for parents or children as manifested in days lost from work or school and thus potentially reduce household income and increase risk for cyclical poverty. EI merits more attention in the academic literature and in public policy.

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