Utility Shut-offs, Death, and Victim Blaming

Expiring rate caps, utility deregulation, and lack of help resulted in increased utility shutoffs that directly caused deaths among the poor.

Over 5.7  million US households suffered utility shutoffs as of December, 2009. Over half a million of those are in Michigan with the majority in Detroit — America’s poorest city. Between January 1, 2010 and March 3, 2010, fourteen Detroit residents died in house fires as a result of utility shut-offs, forcing them to use unsafe alternative heating. The most recent tragedy happened on March 2, 2010 when Sylvia Young, a poor single mother, lost three of her seven children in a house fire after DTE Energy shut off her gas. The fire was caused by a malfunctioning space heater given to Young by her landlord.

Ms. Young tried to get help from agencies to prevent utility termination, but was turned away.

Media, spokespeople from the offices of Detroit’s mayor David Bing, Michigan’s governor Jennifer Granholm, and DTE PR spin doctors blamed the victim, claiming “there is plenty of help” for those unable to afford their utility bills. Not long after the fire, the Detroit Free Press ran an article titled “Mom Was At Store When Children Died In House Fire” , saying that Young had gone to a “party store.” A victim of abusive economic policies was made into the criminal. The truth came out in a subsequent hearing: she had gone to buy a space heater so her children wouldn’t freeze to death. Detroit Free Press never apologized.

“The way it is presented in the media is like I don’t deserve my kids, that I was only interested in the Family Independent Agency taking care of them”, Young said.

The offices of Mayor David Bing, Governor Jennifer Granholm, and DTE insisted that “there is plenty of help” for those unable to afford their utilities. They claimed that Sylvia Young didn’t seek help, which was not true.

Like millions of other poor people facing utility shut-offs, Young tried to get help from every social agency she was directed to only to be given a run-around that failed to yield any real help. Investigations by WSWS journalists revealed that there was no help available when Sylvia Young sought it because funds had been depleted. Judy Panlau of Michigan’s Public Service Commission told WSWS that “there are a number of programs available.” Mayor Bing said the same, citing the Department of Human Services (DHS), LIHEAP, THAW and United Way’s 2-1-1 program.

The United Way’s 2-1-1 and DHS are referral networks. They do not provide direct help with utilities. That leaves only LIHEAP and THAW. Owing to funding shortfalls, only about 20% of those eligible for LIHEAP help can get helped. What they get doesn’t cover one month’s gas bill in the winter.

Eligibility guidelines on THAW’s web site are stringent. Many needy don’t qualify. Applicants must have an income, which fails the jobless receiving nothing but food stamps. Those who received help from THAW within the prior year are ineligible, which fails seniors and disabled people on very low fixed incomes. THAW recipients must meet a DTE-set payment arrangement which is not based on the customers’ income; plans are based on highest consumption estimates without regard to customers’ ability to pay. If customers can’t pay they’re shut off.

THAW is DTE’s non-profit arm, making DTE look like philanthropists that “give back” to the community. DTE gives generously to lawmakers. According to opensecrets.org, DTE’s PAC spent $293,883 since January 2010; 69% of which went to US Congressmen and the Democratic Party. In 2008, DTE’s PAC spent $539,709 on lobbying. One of the biggest recipients was “pro-life” Senator Bart Stupak, who got $16,000 between 2008-2010. What a comfort this must be for poor mothers like Sylvia Young.

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