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After more than a year, we may finally, finally be emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we haven’t yet seen the full extent of the pandemic’s toll. The costs have been enormous. We’ve lost loved ones, jobs, and a sense of security. Many are struggling to support their families and pay their bills.

The same group of people is carrying past-due balances that just keep getting larger.

Because we’ve been spending so much more time at home, we’ve been using more electricity than usual to power our remote work, school, and social lives. We’ve been cooking more. Our heat or air conditioning has had to run all the time. That’s led to higher power bills. Amid an economic downturn and growing unemployment, people are struggling to pay those bills.

To understand what is going on, Arcadia looked at two years of historical energy bill data from 120,000 Arcadia members across 13 states and the District of Columbia, representing approximately one-third of the US population. Our data team compared the total number of bills with a past-due balance in 2019, 2020, and the first quarter of 2021 and then the dollars owed for each year to see if the amount had grown.

Animated bar chart showing the annual average past-due utility balance by month for 2019, 2020, and Q1 2021

Here’s what we found:

  • As of May 2021, one in four Arcadia members has a past-due balance.
  • Average past-due balances have grown 73.6% from 2019 to Q1 2021. The average past-due balance in May 2021 was $885.04, up from $509.81 in 2019.
  • Americans in those states owe an estimated $7.6 billion in past-due electricity bills. While some customers carry balances over years, the balance increased an estimated $3 billion from just 2020.
The same households are struggling with bigger past-due balances

Perhaps surprisingly, the data doesn’t show that more households owe money on their electric bills. The rate of past-due balances held steady at 26% of bills analyzed in 2018, 2019, and 2020. It actually dropped to 24% in Q1 2021.

But the amount of past-due balance owed has increased dramatically. In 2018, the average past-due amount owed was $466.05. That increased to $509.81 in 2019, then jumped to $660.12 in 2020. In Q1 2021, the average jumped again, to $885.04.

The same group of people is carrying past-due balances that just keep getting larger.

Map of the US showing the 13 states highlighted in this analysis. For each, the increase in past-due balance owed from 2019 to Q1 2021 is given as a percentage. The increases range from 28% (Connecticut) to 102% (Massachusetts).

Increases across the board, but more pronounced in some states

While past-due balances increased dramatically across all the states in the analysis, average increases vary widely across states. Massachusetts saw both the largest percentage increase from 2019 to Q1 2021 (102%) and the highest average past-due balances, at $1,182.63 in Q1 2021 (from $585.53 in 2019). Rhode Island also has balances approaching four figures; the average past-due balance in Q1 2021 was $975.47, a 74% increase from 2019 ($562.05). In Illinois, the percentage increase from 2019 ($440.32) to Q1 2021 ($820.10) was 86%.

Even in the states with smaller percentage increases in past-due balances, the average amount owed is still high. New York, for instance, saw a 30% increase in average past-due balance owed in Q1 2021 over 2019, but the average past-due balance in Q1 2021 was still $856.52.

The analysis doesn’t necessarily include water or gas balances, which are often billed separately. However, it’s likely that households struggling to pay their power bills are also struggling to pay for other basic utilities.

Scatterplot graph showing the average utility bill and average past-due balance for 13 states and the District of Columbia.

A wave of upcoming utility shut-offs?

Many states passed moratoria on electricity shut-offs in 2020. A year into the pandemic, however, those moratoria are beginning to expire. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 35 states have shut-off moratoria (a combination of regular winter shut-off bans and COVID shut-off bans) that ended between February and May 2021. Eleven states either had no moratoria in place or had already let them expire. Only the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Virginia have extended their shut-off bans until the end of the pandemic.

The end of those bans will put thousands of households with past-due balances at risk of having their electricity shut off.

The federal government is under pressure from a coalition of more than 600 organizations to issue a nationwide shut-off ban. The coalition argues that utility shut-offs are a public health issue — people can’t follow public health guidelines to stay at home and wash their hands if they lack basic utilities. The NAACP has also found that utility shut-offs disproportionately affect low-income and Black communities, who already deal with higher energy burdens and who have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Assistance is available

Many states and utility companies offer payment assistance programs and other help for people having trouble paying their bills, but those programs are widely underutilized. By some estimates, fewer than 25% of those eligible for utility assistance programs actually enroll.

If you or someone you know needs help paying for power, there are programs to help. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program has resources to check state and utility energy assistance programs. We’ve also compiled a list of utility companies’ payment policies under COVID-19, as well as tips for conserving energy while spending more time at home.

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Holly Bowers

Holly Bowers is a copywriter with Arcadia.

Boulder, CO