Washington residents who have benefited from a moratorium on utility shut-offs should start preparing now. A ban against turning off electricity, water or broadband service for nonpayment expires at the end of this month.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, government has played a role in helping vulnerable citizens impacted by economic shutdowns. A statewide moratorium on eviction for nonpayment and the moratorium on utility shut-offs have helped keep a roof over the heads of our neighbors and have helped keep the lights on. But those moratoriums are scheduled to end, and the bills will come due.
Eviction moratoriums have received much attention. Congress has approved $45 billion in rental assistance to help keep people housed and landlords getting paid. Distribution of that money has been slow, and a national ban on evictions has ended — although Washington’s continues until Sept. 30.
Protection from having utilities disconnected has been less prominent but nearly as important. The state Department of Commerce estimates that 500,000 Washington customers have overdue utility bills, and officials urge residents to contact providers to set up payment plans.
“I urge people to make that call as soon as they can,” Gov. Jay Inslee said this week. “That call can give a family one less thing to worry about as fall and winter approaches.”
The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey indicates that 80 million Americans are having difficulty paying bills during the pandemic. And Time magazine reports: “Even if you’re fortunate enough to be covered by a moratorium, it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear — it only means your unpaid bills are deferred. This means that you could owe several months’ worth of water, electric, or gas bills, on top of getting those utilities shut off, when your state moratorium expires.”
That has drawn the attention of some in Congress. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has introduced the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act, which would provide $40 billion to help wipe out household water, power and broadband debt. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., last month introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. “Water, power, heat, and internet are basic human needs — and they are especially necessary as families look to rebuild from the pandemic,” Merkley said.
Considering that Merkley’s bill was introduced in May but has attracted no co-sponsors, it seems unlikely to gain traction. But the larger issue of whether water, energy and internet service are basic human needs warrants discussion.
Indeed, those items are important to modern life and to public health. But the entire American economy and way of life is built on a capitalist system in which goods and services go to those who are willing and able to pay for them. Even food, among the most basic of human needs, typically requires investment from the consumer.
One way in which that system could be upended is the growing availability of renewable energy. Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, predicted in 2015: “By the year 2050, electricity generating industries will no longer be charging for electricity. They will simply be trying to recover the return on capital expenditure.”
It is an intriguing thought, but for now it remains far in the future. Customers still must pay for utilities, and those who have received assistance through a moratorium on shut-offs must be aware that the moratorium is ending in four weeks. Preparing now can help keep the lights on.