Poor Face Hard Choices: Power Or Food?

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Poor Face Hard Choices: Power Or Food? The Fresno Bee ( July 20, 2001 )

Let's take a break from our frustration over climbing utility bills, and consider very poor families in this Valley who soon may be forced to choose between electricity and eating.

Some Valley families will be saving energy involuntarily this summer as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. or Southern California Edison Co. turns off the juice for nonpayment.

Poor families were having a tough time a year ago, well before the utilities assessed the latest hefty price increases.

Now what do they do?

Religious congregations are helping out, but people who help the poor see far more need than help to meet it.

Times are tough at PG&E, too, unless you don't believe the utility's explanations for filing bankruptcy. Or maybe you can't quite square your sympathy with roughly $50 million in bonuses and raises that PG&E paid to 6,000 employees shortly before it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That was a separate pot of money, the utility says, and approved by the bankruptcy judge.

The utility's Web site reassures customers:

"As Pacific Gas and Electricity Company progresses through Chapter 11 Reorganization, be assured that the services we provide to our customers will continue uninterrupted."

Unless you can't pay your bills. Even there, PG&E gives customers a break, says spokeswoman Christy Dennis. It takes three missed bills, three notices and an ignored phone call to get your power turned off.

But hundreds, maybe thousands will be turned off. What does that mean for families with children's food in the refrigerator or families caring for elderly relatives or for the ill?

PG&E, Edison and other utilities offer discounts to qualifying households in such straits. PG&E, for instance, recently announced greater discounts on gas and electricity under its CARE program, up from 15% to 20%.

A family of four can earn up to $31,100 and still qualify. The income limit is no problem, anti-poverty advocates say, because thousands of Valley families earn less than a third of that -- in good years.

The REACH program relies on tax-deductible donations from PG&E's customers and employees, matched by PG&E shareholders, up to $1.3 million per year.

PG&E pays administrative expenses. But the REACH program is good for one payment in 12 months. The maximum payment rose from $200 to $300, but fell back to $200.

What about the other 11 months where the poor can't meet expenses?

And how many people facing their own rising utility bills will donate through PG&E to help its low-income customers?

The Home Energy Assistance Program -- HEAP -- provides once-a-year help through the state.

There are also payment arrangements, extra time to pay off your utility debt, a medical baseline program that addresses medical needs, free energy education and energy-efficient weather treatment for qualifying homes. The easy way to hook into the assistance network is to call PG&E toll-free at (800) 743-5000. Prepare for phone menu challenges.

You have to wonder whether these and similar plans will come close to keeping refrigerators and air conditioning running in poor neighborhoods.

Dennis, PG&E's friendly and cooperative spokeswoman in Fresno, makes several points.

The graduated rate hikes do not apply to miserly energy consumers, those who can keep below 130% of the baseline level, which excludes most.

"Remember," she says, "customers saw a 140% increase in their heating costs during winter," a more painful increase than most will suffer this summer.

So much for the good news.

Dennis adds that PG&E is not receiving revenue from the state energy surcharge, and merely collects for the state Department of Water Resources. What PG&E collects "is the same frozen amount it has collected since deregulation...in 1996."

This raises questions about why the state got into the power-buying game to begin with, about deregulation and the utilities' resorting to state help. It is all being argued in the state Legislature and in Congress.

What I want to know is, what are we going to do to help our desperate families?

I hear no clear answer, even when I ask people whose job it is to help. They just don't know.

In San Francisco, Nancy Udy, director of social services, administers the Salvation Army's REACH program for PG&E in Central and Northern California. She says the Fresno area is right up there when it comes to needy households, but things are tough all over. In Fresno County, 2,027 households participated in REACH through the third week of June, Udy says, and received $387,295.63.

That's works out to just below the $200 limit.

Last year, the Salvation Army helped 17,000 families. In just the first five months of this year, it helped more than 11,000. Udy sees families making hard choices:

"People are in the midst of choosing between buying food or paying their energy bill."

So help is urgently needed. Just to test PG&E's system, I called its CARE number, listed on its Web site. I wondered as I dialed how many people living in poverty have no computer and know no Web site. How many can't or don't read helpful notices that come with the bills they can't pay?

I reached a cooperative English-Spanish bilingual CARE fellow, who told me I could also be helped in Chinese and Vietnamese.

Where does that leave thousands of people who speak Hmong, Lao, Portuguese and scores of other languages spoken in this Valley? Dennis says PG&E has one person working the ethnic outreach detail, including radio messages. The utility is launching a bilingual radio campaign to let people know what's available.

I called the state's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, punched through its phone menu only to learn that my answers would come from the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission.

Paul White, assistant executive director, said the EOC is getting the word out to people about utility rate discounts and energy-saving weather treatments.

"There's not enough, " he says.

The EOC was running out of energy assistance money last week with the summer not even half gone.

In midconversation, White took a call from the state, informing him of an additional $340,000. That will keep the EOC from exhausting that fund in another week.

"We're trying to serve the poorest of the poor," he said. "I grew up in poverty, no electricity, no running water, in rural Oklahoma. I worked the fields as a child. I know what that is about.

"You see it now because of the water situation inadequate irrigation supply. People are working only partial days in the fields...We talk to people on medical devices in homes about to have their energy shut off. People on oxygen are not able to keep up with their bills.

"I get calls from people panicking that their PG&E is going to be cut off. We work with them and PG&E. PG&E is sympathetic, and we can get them turned back on."

Dennis at PG&E urges people to contact the utility before they get into serious trouble. They may benefit from easier payment schedules.

Jeff Ponting, directing lawyer for the California Rural Legal Assistance in Fresno, says that helpful programs may be well-motivated but that many farmworkers and others don't know they exist.

He mentioned one family whose PG&E bill rose from $88 in January to $95 in March to $318 in May.

It won't cool off much before October, and then we can worry about people who can't keep warm.

The columnist can be reached at

mailto:jsteinberg@fresnobee.comor 441-6637.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 20, 2001


You don't NEED air conditioning. Just put a good fan in the window and sit quietly. Or go to a public building like a library or a mall.

-- John Littmann (johntl@mtn.org), July 22, 2001.

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