This Tuesday marked 67 days of darkness for Kenneth Parson. He fell behind on his utility bills in the spring — and his lights went off, and stayed off, starting at the end of July.
No power meant no refrigerator, so Parson, a 62-year-old with diabetes in Griffin, Ga., had no choice but to store his temperature-sensitive insulin on ice in a small cooler. He didn’t have an easy way to cook at home, either, so his wife, Cheryl, took to preparing some meals for him in a neighbor’s kitchen.
In those first few days after they lost electricity, Cheryl had pleaded on Parson’s behalf with city officials who manage their local utilities, hoping she might change their minds in the middle of a pandemic that has left families nationwide struggling to cover their once-manageable costs of living.
“They said they couldn’t do nothing for him,” lamented Cheryl, 65, who lives apart from her husband but remains married and helps him manage his health conditions. “It peeved me off.”
The worst economic crisis in more than a generation has thrust potentially millions of Americans across the country into a similar, sudden peril: Cash-strapped, and in some cases still unemployed, they have fallen far behind on their electricity, water and gas bills, staring down the prospect of potential utility shut-offs and fast-growing debts they may never be able to repay.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many states acted quickly to ensure their residents would not lose their power or other utilities if their jobs or wages were slashed. Now, however, only 21 states and the District of Columbia still have such disconnection bans in place.
That leaves roughly 179 million Americans at risk of losing service even as the economy continues sputtering, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’