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For Many Texans, The Winter Storm Is Far From Over

KERA’s new series, One Crisis Away: The Storm Lingers, will look at how this natural disaster hit Texas’ most vulnerable the hardest.
E.B. Lutz
/
KERA
KERA’s new series, One Crisis Away: The Storm Lingers, will look at how this natural disaster hit Texas’ most vulnerable the hardest.

The storm’s effects are still lingering for many in the state. That's especially true for low-income Texans.

Many low-income Texans were especially vulnerable to the storm’s damages. They were residing in homes more exposed to the elements, subject to the whim of landlords, and sometimes reliant on government programs and social service agencies to get damages repaired.

Leah King, the CEO of the United Way of Tarrant County, said that the consequences of natural disasters are felt more acutely by people without a financial cushion. An event like the winter storm can create problems that are experienced as inconveniences by wealthier or higher-income families, but can set off a cascade of issues for families without stable financial footing.

“They had food spoiling and pipes bursting and then they had water damage and so it just had a snowball impact as a result of the storm, and so many families are struggling to recover from that,” she said.

King said her organization heard from many people who had electric bills more than $500 after the February storm, an economic gut punch after a year of the pandemic’s pummeling.

KERA’s new series, One Crisis Away: The Storm Lingers, will look at how this natural disaster hit Texas’ most vulnerable the hardest.

The series will zoom in on energy insecurity, exploring how the systems we have to power our homes often fail lower-income Texans.

It’s not clear exactly how many Texans are unable to consistently cover their home energy costs. It is clear, though, that during the pandemic, social services agencies have seen a surge in requests for help covering utility bills.

About 41% of Texas households are considered lower-income, meaning that they make less than 80% of the typical income in their city or region.

According to Dana Harmon, who runs the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute, lower-income households put about 10% of their earnings toward home energy, on average. A family paying more than 6% of household income for home energy is considered ‘energy burdened.’

“Our research shows that households facing energy insecurity may delay or skip necessary spending on other expenses like groceries or clothing in order to pay utility bills,” Harmon said.

Energy insecurity can also exacerbate health problems, she said.

The largest driver of energy insecurity, experts say, is that so many Texans simply don’t earn enough money to be financially stable. Housing and other costs have grown faster than wages in the years since the Great Recession, making it harder for many people to cover even the expected expenses.

“It got worse in the pandemic, and the storm added on an additional layer of additional financial distress to these families, and they’re having a very difficult time pulling out of it,” said King.

And COVID-19’s effects haven’t been borne out equally. People who were already more likely to struggle financially were most affected by the pandemic’s economic devastation: Lower-income workers, disproportionately Latino and Black, and women with children.

But income doesn’t tell the entire story of why so many Texans struggle to make ends meet. Shopping on the deregulated electricity market – which 85% of Texans do – can be confusing, and a poor credit score can often limit a family to a higher electricity rate.

The efficiency of a home can also be a big factor: If a house has cracks in the walls, inadequate insulation, or old single-paned windows, the cost to heat and cool that house can be significantly higher than a similar home that is better weatherized. Old, inefficient appliances can also drive up energy bills.

For homeowners, fixing those problems is expensive. For renters, it may be impossible.

“I may know that my HVAC unit is incredibly inefficient … but I may not have the capital to buy a new one,” said Harmon. “Or I may be a renter, and despite my complaints to my landlord, my landlord doesn’t have the incentive to invest in upgrades to my residence because I’m the one paying the [electric] bill.”

There are weatherization programs funded by the federal government, but few homeowners are aware of them, and they often run out of funds. For those who are able to get help weatherizing their homes, though, these programs can help shore up a family’s finances by keeping utility bills in check.

Over the next several weeks, as KERA unpacks the winter storm’s lingering effects and digs into energy insecurity, we’d love to hear from you.

  • Are you still trying to recover from the winter storm? What’s getting in the way?

  • Have you looked for ways to weatherize or improve energy efficiency in your home?

  • Have you gotten stuck with an expensive electricity plan that tacks on hidden fees? Or developed a strategy to shop for electricity on Texas’ deregulated electricity market?

  • Are you worried about what this hotter-than-usual summer will mean for the family pocket book?


Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org. You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Copyright 2021 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.