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Stop utility shut-offs during COVID-19 crisis, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president says

David Brancaccio, Rose Conlon, and Alex Schroeder Mar 27, 2020
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Some states have worked to stop utility shut-offs, including Maryland, Kansas and Kentucky. Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Stop utility shut-offs during COVID-19 crisis, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president says

David Brancaccio, Rose Conlon, and Alex Schroeder Mar 27, 2020
Some states have worked to stop utility shut-offs, including Maryland, Kansas and Kentucky. Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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There’s been a lot of conversation about letting some people put off mortgage payments or, in some cases, rent during the COVID-19 emergency. But what about the water and electricity payments?

Some states have worked to stop utility shut-offs, including Maryland, Kansas and Kentucky. Some cities, too: Atlanta and Phoenix among them.

But shut-offs are still happening in many parts of the country. And that makes homes ⁠— where more and more governors are telling people to stay ⁠— unsafe.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told Marketplace’s David Brancaccio “there has not been ⁠— consistently, across the country ⁠— a recognition that we’re sending children to homes where the water may be turned off, or where electricity or other utilities may be shut off.”

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sherrilyn Ifill: This is a very serious public health issue. A number of jurisdictions have been doing a terrific job. But there are other jurisdictions that have completely overlooked the need to suspend utility shut-off. And what this now requires is governors and mayors to recognize that this should not be on the list of worries that people who are struggling financially have along with keeping themselves safe from this pandemic. They should not worry about whether or not their children will be able to take a bath and drink water in the home.

David Brancaccio: You’re clearly working this issue at the local, county and state level. This isn’t something that just needs to be done with a line in some legislation out of Washington.

Ifill: We would love to have a nationwide moratorium on all utility shut-offs, but every day, turn offs are happening. The wheels of Congress, as we have seen over the last few weeks, grind slowly. And so you know, we can’t wait.

Brancaccio: We’re also talking about a much bigger issue. People were struggling before this virus ever hit.

Ifill: One of the things this crisis has revealed is really the very precarious situation of so many Americans, as it relates to health care, as it relates to their jobs, as it relates to their wages and hours. People are living hand to mouth, they’re relying on their paychecks, and this crisis, and the need for us to stay at home, and the layoffs that have happened, have revealed to us the very precarious situation in which many Americans live. And we’ve got to, when we have a moment to breathe from this pandemic, turn our attention to dealing with those structural issues. We are uniquely ill-equipped to take on the challenge that a pandemic like this presents to a country. It’s one of the reasons, I think, we are doing so badly. That’s because of existing deficits that have existed. And this is an opportunity for us, when we have a moment, to begin to address what are the fundamental weaknesses in American society that have largely resulted from our failure to ensure that Americans are not living at the financial margin.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

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It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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