Lately, discussions about how to reduce the federal deficit have dominated the airwaves and internet. In our region, debt fears played a role in the defeat of Referendum 52, a proposal to retrofit schools. A similar proposal for Oregon’s schools also faces an uphill battle. At all levels of government politicians are wringing their hands and editorial boards are declaring a debt crisis.
But an irrational fear of debt is a big mistake—especially when it comes to energy efficiency. Check out this news report about big cuts in federal energy assistance.
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This is really irritating. The story highlights the very real problem of poor families struggling to pay their energy bill. What’s happening in the story about Georgia is also happening here in the Northwest. Poor, working families are being left out in the cold—quite literally—because the federal government hasn’t gotten its act together to provide funding for energy assistance. The video highlights the tragic turn this can take when people who can’t get assistance have to choose between paying their energy bill or buying food.
Helping these families pay their energy bills is a stop gap at best. The better, longer term solution would be to provide energy efficiency upgrades to their homes and make investments in large neighborhood-scale energy efficiencies. Energy efficiency upgrades provide a long term solution, saving money for families that can be put into reserve or toward living expenses. Tightening up an old house could yield those benefits for years rather than cutting an energy assistance check every month from a shrinking federal budget. But it’s not happening owing to fears about the debt required.
Local governments should borrow money for the capital costs and labor to tighten up the homes of poor people struggling to pay their bills. That is a wise investment, and a fair one. Think about it: borrow money today, help families reduce their energy bills, and use the savings from not having to pay for energy assistance to help pay back the loan.
Where’s the outrage that this isn’t happening?
The outrage, unfortunately, is reserved for bashing down the debt.
State treasurers and local officials are also giving in to what can be best described as debt hysteria. And real people are paying the price for it by suffering through the winter cold.
Remember, poor people spend a greater share of their income on energy than people who have higher incomes.
So while politicians shiver in fear of bond rating agencies, poor people are shivering in their homes, struggling to pay their energy bills. But in a tough economy with unstable energy prices, things may only get worse. Without large-scale investments in making homes and apartments more efficient, more and more people will be facing higher energy bills that will eat into their incomes. Sweating the debt just helps ensure that the scenes being played out across the country this winter—low income families unable to pay their energy bills—might just well become a regular fixture in the news.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Work is underway in our region to help expand the availability of affordable loans for families who would be hardest hit by a spike in energy bills—or a cut in federal energy assistance. In Washington, for example, amending the state’s constitution [link] to expand the use of public credit for residential and commercial energy efficiency would be a step in the right direction.
Elected officials are widening the sustainability gap—the distance between what they say and what they do to support sustainable policies—because smart public debt can create energy efficiencies that help vulnerable families, and also creates green jobs in the construction sector at a time when unemployment is much too high.
Yes, I said “green jobs.” Word on the street is that that term isn’t so popular anymore. But what’s really not popular—or at least what shouldn’t be popular—is missing the opportunity to use energy efficiency financing to make smart investments that help working families, create jobs, and reduces our energy use and carbon emissions.