Commentary, COVID-19

Utility shutoff moratorium, protections from other fees and debts are essential while crisis continues

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In this time of crisis, all of us need to be looking out for our families and neighbors, protecting and helping our brothers and sisters in every way we can. After all, we are our brothers’ keeper. Our response must be based on compassion, morality, and care for our communities—values rooted in our shared faith traditions. To that end, one essential, immediate step the Governor must take is to extend the moratorium on utility disconnections – currently set to expire on May 30—until this emergency is over.

For the past couple of months, we have shared a common faith that we can work together to support each other as people began getting sick and dying from COVID-19, as businesses closed down, jobs were lost, and families began struggling to weather the economic crisis. And the twin storms of pandemic and unprecedented job loss have hit Black and Latinx communities disproportionately hard.

While 22 percent of North Carolina residents are African American, Black people account for 31 percent of all COVID-19 infections and an alarming 36 percent of all related deaths. Hispanics account for about 10 percent of the state’s population but more than 35 percent of infections. These disproportionate outcomes mirror the unfair poverty levels that people in these demographic groups experience–over twenty percent of all African Americans and about a quarter of all Hispanics live at or below the poverty line compared to only one-tenth of white families. As has been widely reported, long-term structural racial inequality in education, health care, and wealth too often force Black and Latinx residents to take on the low-wage, manual, and often public-facing service jobs that are still deemed “essential” at a time while much of the population is asked to stay at home.

While our Governor is taking steps toward slowly reopening businesses, we all must recognize that it will be many months before hundreds of thousands of households of all racial and ethnic backgrounds will be financially stable enough to afford basic necessities like rent and utilities. One data point that drives this home is that more than 425,000 households could have already lost one or more vital utility services, such as access to clean water, electricity, or gas due to being unable to pay their bills over the last two months. While this data is not reported by race, it is likely that a disproportionate number of households struggling to pay their utilities bills are also within Black and Latinx households. Even before the pandemic, within households at or below the Federal Poverty Level, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration has shown that in our region, African American households more often experience shut-offs of essential electricity service than their white counterparts.

For far too long, too many families have been forced to choose whether to keep the lights on, put food on the table, or purchase medicine. Beyond the immediate needs of extending the utility shut-off moratorium, we must do more to ensure that essential utility service is within reach for all families. We should initiate affordable rate designs and expand budgets and financing options for energy-saving upgrades that reach those most in need. Sadly, existing federal programs that provide utility payment assistance are grossly underfunded. Even with recent additional funds from Congress, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program can only meet a fraction of the need, and in any event provides assistance for only one month of utility bills. The crisis is no doubt causing a strain on utilities as well—particularly municipal utilities—and state and federal officials should find a way to keep those utilities solvent as we all weather the crisis together.

Utility services are critical for maintaining public health and slowing the spread of the coronavirus for all residents across the state. Our Governor did what was necessary to protect those hundreds of thousands of households and ensure access to those services when he issued Executive Order 124 instituting a moratorium on utility disconnections in March. That single act strengthened our collective faith in our political leaders and their commitment to protecting our families and communities.

But that faith must be maintained. Families and communities throughout the state will need to know that they will have power and running water while they struggle to get back on their feet. One of the principles of The Faith and Leadership COVID-19 Recovery Plan is for the extension of the Moratorium on Certain Fees, Fines, and Debt Collections. We call for an immediate moratorium on household expenses, debt, and loan forbearance for mortgage and rent payments, credit cards, utility bills, and evictions. It is imperative that all North Carolinians remain economically safe, housed, and whole. That is the moral path to follow.

Rev. Spearman is the President of the North Carolina NAACP.

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