Promoting affordable energy and health for all Michigan families

When my daughter was 2, she came down with what we assumed was an ordinary cold.

Within two days, her condition got worse, and she was diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Not long before, a colleague’s infant child had been hospitalized because of RSV, so I was afraid of what might be in store for my own family.

Much to my relief, such drastic measures weren’t necessary. My daughter received a breathing treatment at the doctor’s office and we left with a prescription for a nebulizer so we could continue the treatments at home.

The impact was amazing. Every treatment was like Popeye’s spinach for her, and, within a few days, she was back to her normal self, tiring her parents out with her boundless energy.

As someone with a professional focus on the social determinants of health, I couldn’t help but think about how the outcome might have been very different if our family were struggling to pay for the electricity that powered that nebulizer.

Household energy security has remained on my mind as COVID-19 has sickened nearly 900,000 Michiganders — myself included. Utility service was crucial to my survival and recovery — I switched between heat and air conditioning as my body swung between fever and chills. I awoke multiple times every night and turned on the lights to take medication that kept me out of the emergency room. I took long, hot showers to get temporary relief from the sore muscles, pounding headaches, and menacing pressure in my chest.

In the League’s new policy brief, Empowering Families Through Affordable Energy, we explore the critical role of home energy service in our health, our ability to succeed in school and at work, and the economic security of our families.

Unaffordable utility bills tie into larger issues of housing quality and why it’s difficult for so many Michigan families to find a safe place to live.

They’re also a testament to the enduring impact of historical and ongoing housing and economic discrimination, which disproportionately channels people of color into older, energy-inefficient homes. That means Black and Brown families must spend a larger share of their income on utility bills, often forgoing other basic needs like food and health care to avoid service disconnection and eviction.

Many housing quality issues that lead to energy waste also present risks to health and safety, so residents may face a greater risk of hypo- and hyperthermia and asthma triggers. In particular, poor housing quality and barriers to energy access can have dire consequences for the health of older adults, people with disabilities, and young children.

Ensuring safe homes and energy security for all families is one way to advance equity so all Michiganders can survive and thrive — especially as we experience more frequent weather extremes like polar vortexes and summer heat waves, and the COVID-19 crisis widens existing health, academic, and economic disparities.

A patchwork of state and federal programs supports family health with utility bill payment and energy efficiency improvements, but the total amount available isn’t enough to address the structural problems in the housing stock and the economy that make basic needs unaffordable for so many families.

The League’s policy brief outlines some ways lawmakers can help Michiganders with their utility costs, including: expanding utility shutoff protections to households with young children; increasing funding for home repairs that promote health and safety; establishing a pilot program to study the impact of energy efficiency improvements on housing stability, health outcomes, and health care costs for Medicaid enrollees; and promoting income-based utility bills for households with low incomes.

The energy that powers our lights, water heaters, and furnaces also empowers our families.

Check out the brief at mlpp.org to learn about our state-level policy solutions to improve existing assistance programs, address the immediate energy needs of households in crisis, and promote long-term energy security through housing justice.

Julie Cassidy is senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy.


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