1 in 6 North Carolinians couldn't pay at least one energy bill last year: Census data

Tuesday, October 4, 2022
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As the cost of food, rent and gas rises, many North Carolinians are left to wonder how they'll pay the rest of their bills.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As the cost of food, rent and gas rises, many North Carolinians are left to wonder how they'll pay the rest of their bills, including their energy bills.

"As you know, with the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused North Carolinians to live in the most unprecedented times that they ever have," said Allison Smith, deputy director of Economic and Family Services at NCDHHS. "And when you couple that with the rising cost of rent and food and gas to get to and from work, we have seen an increase in individuals needing assistance with our crisis programs."

According to data from the Census Bureau, in the last year, 17.2% of North Carolinians were unable to pay an energy bill at least once in the last year. That number quickly increases for people of color, gender and sexual minorities, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities.

"It does not surprise me just due to the percentage of their income that goes to housing and utilities is a higher percentage often," said Janny Mealor, the assistant division director of Adult and Family Services at Wake County Health and Human Services. "And with that it just creates more challenges, and they have to maneuver their income and their expenses, and try to make everything fit in as best they can, and it can change for month to month of where someone might have to prioritize one bill over another, and something, you know, something can't get paid, and they have to kind of manage that as best they can."

Additionally, according to the data, 26.6% of North Carolinians gave up basic necessities like food or medicine to pay an energy bill. In the last year, 15.7% kept their home at an unsafe or unhealthy temperature to keep costs lower.

Tammy Allen is one such North Carolinian. A former day care owner, she was forced to give up her business when she learned she had fibromyalgia and lupus. All four of her children have disabilities as well; three of them live with her. She received funds from Section 8 and found a nice home for her family, but now she's afraid she'll lose their home because she can't pay the light bill.

"You can't have Section 8 without lights. They have rules you have to follow," Allen said. "And I follow those rules all the time. I mean, they know, I don't play around. Me and my children deserve to live in a nice house."

Allen received a utilities bill for more than $400 earlier this year and asked to be placed on an installment payment plan. She then applied for programs with social services with the state and county and was awarded funds to cover her bills and apply a credit to her account. But in late September, she received another bill saying she owed $710, and if she didn't pay $497, her service would be disconnected.

"I was angry, I cried, I was devastated because I'm saying, me and my children are gonna be without lights," Allen said.

Mealor and Smith know Allen is not alone. Mealor said many people apply for assistance from the county multiple times to get help paying utility bills. Both the state and individual counties have a number of programs available to help people pay down their bills.

However, Mealor added that it's best to act fast-before the lights are disconnected.

"We do encourage if someone is facing challenges with their bill that they do reach out and apply via one of the methods when they have that past due notice," Mealor said. "Don't wait until the last minute, and that just helps everyone get through the process."

Allen was able to turn to a family member to help pay the bills, but she knows not everyone is so lucky. And she worries what will happen when the next bill comes.

For assistance in Wake County, residents can find help by requesting an application for an interview in one of the following ways:

*Note, applications cannot be processed without required interview therefore when applying please be careful to include a good phone number to reach you and an email you can be reached. During peak periods calls may be made afterhours or weekends.