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The pandemic has dragged on for 12 months, far longer than anyone could have predicted last March. 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’re spending so much more time at home, we’re using more electricity than usual to power our remote work, school, and social lives. We’re cooking more. Our heat has to run all the time now. That’s leading to higher power bills. Amid an economic downturn and growing unemployment, people are struggling to pay those bills.

To understand what’s 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 and 2020, and then the dollars owed for each year to see if the amount had grown.

Here’s what we found:

  • As of January 2021, one in four Arcadia members has a past-due balance.
  • Average past-due balances have grown 66% from 2019 to January 2021. The average past-due balance in January 2021 was $849.46, up from $509.81 in 2019.
  • Americans in those states owe an estimated $8 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.

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 January 2021, the average jumped again, to $849.46.

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 2020 is given as a percentage. The increases range from 18% (Rhode Island) to 44% (Maine).

Increases across the board in 2020, but more pronounced in some states

While past-due balances increased 30% in 2020 across all the states in the analysis, average increases vary widely across states. Maine saw the largest increase year-on-year; the average past-due balance was 44% higher in 2020 ($683.19) than in 2019 ($473.08). Massachusetts had one of the largest percent increases from 2019 to 2020 (40%) and one of the highest average past-due balances, at $817.36 in 2020 (from $585.53 in 2019). In January 2021, the average shot up to $1,058.17.

Even in the states with smaller year-over-year increases in past-due balances, the average amount owed is still high. New York, for instance, saw an 18% increase in average past-due balance owed in 2020 over 2019, but the average past-due balance in 2020 was still $773.11.

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 will end between February and May 2021. Eleven states either had no moratoria in place or have 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