Energy Insecurity among Families with Children

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Energy insecurity (EI) reflects an inability to adequately meet basic household heating, cooling, and energy needs. EI is a pervasive and often-overlooked problem for low-income families with children. Conceptually, EI is a multi-dimensional construct that describes the interplay between structural conditions of housing and the costs of household energy. EI is characterized by three primary elements: physical EI – deficient and inefficient housing structures, economic EI – disproportionate share of household income allocated to utility expenses, and coping EI – energy-related coping strategies that could potentially compromise the quality of the home environment and have negative health consequences.

The relevance of EI is indicated by the fact that lower-income families are more likely than their counterparts with higher-incomes to: (1) live in housing with heating and electrical problems, (2) have experienced multiple heating equipment breakdowns, (3) have had an interruption in utility service, (4) have inadequate insulation and insufficient heating capacity, and (5) report being uncomfortably cold for more than 24 hours during the winter. As a result of these energy deficiencies, energy costs tend to be comparatively higher for lower-income groups, thus reducing their ability to purchase other basic necessities of life such as food, as they face the “heat or eat” dilemma. Despite the prevalence of EI and implications for the health and well-being of families with children, there are no national statistics available to both illuminate this problem and generate more attention at the policy level.

This brief describes the extent of economic EI by family income, demographic characteristics, and geographical area, using the latest and most comprehensive data available. We examine the disproportionate share of household income allocated to energy expenses among families with children, defining this as economic EI, and refer to households with more than 10 percent of energy burden as “energy insecure.” This measure is based on the Department of Energy’s annual estimates of homes that experience an energy affordability gap.

This brief looks at the prevalence of economic EI among households with children under age 18 in the United States, using the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) data. Economic EI is measured using household energy expenditures, which include home heating, cooling, appliances, and lighting as a percentage of annual household income. For instance, if a family of four had an annual household income at the federal poverty level (FPL) of $22,350 in 2011 and its gross annual energy bill was $2,500, the household’s gross economic EI would be above 10 percent. This family would be categorized as experiencing economic EI. This situation may materialize into trade-offs with other competing expenses such as food and shelter, thus reflecting a potential “trifecta of insecurity” in meeting three basic needs: housing, food and energy. Clearly, this issue has important implications for children’s well-being, given the unequal distribution of economic EI and its disproportionate impact on low-income families.

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