By Greg Jaffe
In early March, with the weather warming and her day of reckoning with the power company fast approaching, Shawna Brewer slid her bill from the envelope and tried not to cry. She owed $4,242.44.
It was the beginning of another month for Shawna, 38, in which her main goal was survival.
Like millions of Americans, she was not just poor, she was poor in ways that often rendered her unaccounted for by many of the government aid programs and charitable groups that could offer help. Her blighted Zip code had become the sort of place where hundreds of families could lose their electricity; few would complain and no one in a position of power or influence would even notice.
Illinois law prohibited winter cutoffs for nonpayment, but Shawna knew that the disconnections would start again soon, and she knew that she would likely be at the top of the power company’s list. “I’ve got a $4,000 light bill that I have no flipping idea how I’m going to pay,” she said. “As soon as it gets warm, we’re going to get shut off.”
Today, the federal government is in the midst of one of the biggest expansions of the social safety net in U.S. history, committing $5 trillion over the last year to keeping American families afloat. President Biden predicted the flood of aid could cut child poverty in half.
And yet for all its successes, the trillions in aid have often failed to reach the poorest Americans in places like the south end of Peoria. Because many in Shawna’s neighborhood have jobs that paid them in cash and because they didn’t report their income to the government, they were unable to qualify for unemployment insurance. Because they moved frequently, failed to file taxes or owed fines for back child support or past criminal activity, they often didn’t receive their full stimulus checks.
The cutoffs, however, did catch the eye of Steve Cicala, an economist at Tufts University, who was searching for a real-time indicator of how the poorest families in America were weathering the pandemic recession. Cicala knew that the recession’s pain wasn’t being shared equally. Wealthier Americans who could work from home and owned stocks were getting richer. Even many poorer Americans saw their savings grow last year thanks to generous unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, according to banking and credit card data.
Cicala knew such financial data often missed the country’s most impoverished citizens who don’t have credit cards or bank accounts. Electricity captured everyone.
“If you want to know where the holes in the safety net are — if people are falling through the cracks and being pushed to the limits of poverty — [electricity] data are more valuable,” Cicala said. In Illinois, the state regulatory commission required utilities to report monthly numbers on arrearages, late fees and disconnections for every Zip code, making it a perfect test case.
Cicala was stunned at what he found. Close to 1 percent of all residences in Illinois were cut off for nonpayment in October 2020. “That 1 percent comes from a whole bunch of zeros, and a really severe shock in concentrated areas,” Cicala said. “There are some places where the pain is really extraordinary.”