In a special report from Peoria, Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe uncovered grim statistics about shut-offs in that Central Illinois city. It indicates, as one researcher said, that our social safety net is in “grave need of repair.”
As the pandemic dragged on month after month, hundreds struggled simply to keep the lights on. Last fall, 5.4 percent of all residences in… (the) 61605 Zip code — about 300 houses — were cut off for failing to pay their power bill. Another 250 houses in a neighboring Zip code — or about 4 percent of all residences — also lost power.
The disconnections, which were reported to the state government by private utilities, should have been a flashing red light that the social safety net was missing Peoria’s poorest.
And yet the cutoffs throughout Peoria’s south end went largely unnoticed. Local charities with money to help with power bills reported no surge in requests for assistance. City officials speculated that the disconnection statistics must be wrong.
But Steve Cicala, an economist at Tufts University, did notice the cut-offs, as he sought indicators of how the poorest families in America were struggling through this public health and economic crisis.
“If you want to know where the holes in the safety net are — if people are falling through the cracks and being pushed to the limits of poverty — [electricity] data are more valuable,” Cicala told Jaffe. The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) required utilities to report monthly numbers on arrearages, late fees and disconnections for every Zip code. Jaffe writes:
Cicala was stunned at what he found. Close to 1 percent of all residences in Illinois were cut off for nonpayment in October 2020. “That 1 percent comes from a whole bunch of zeros, and a really severe shock in concentrated areas,” Cicala said. “There are some places where the pain is really extraordinary.”
Before resuming disconnections, the Illinois Commerce Commission had struck a deal with the power companies that was supposed to protect the most vulnerable customers from disconnection. Those who had lost income because of the pandemic simply had to call the power company and ask for more time to pay their bill. “No written proof is necessary, but you must make the phone call,” the commission wrote in a news release.
Still, about 72,000 families in Illinois, including Shawna’s, lost power last fall. Some said they didn’t call because they didn’t believe that the electricity company would give them more time. Others called but didn’t say the right words or were connected to customer service representatives who didn’t understand the new policy.
Customers in majority Black and Hispanic Zip codes were about four times more likely to be disconnected for nonpayment, according to Cicala. “These results highlight that people who were already in poverty are suffering tremendously,” Cicala said.
They also suggest a broader problem. “The regulator’s goal was zero disconnections. The local safety net [in Peoria] didn’t register a crisis,” he continued. “That would suggest that our social safety net is in grave need of repair.”