Abstract: Concentrated Disadvantage of Energy Insecurity and Psychological Stress Among Underserved Communities (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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368P Concentrated Disadvantage of Energy Insecurity and Psychological Stress Among Underserved Communities

Friday, January 13, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Chien-fei Chen, PhD, Research Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee, K, Knoxville, TN
Courtney Cronley, PhD, Associate Professor, The University of Tennesee, Knoxville, Knoxville, TN
Background and Purpose: Energy insecurity is defined as less access and difficulty affording utilities, and vulnerable populations within the United States disproportionately experience energy insecurity. The present study applied the framework of concentrated disadvantage to identify 1) how the interconnected factors of vulnerability, including income, gender, race/ethnicity, rental status, disability status, and energy-reliant medical needs (EMNs) (i.e., households who rely on energy access for medical needs), may intensify energy insecurity, and 2) their relationship with psychological stress.

Methods: Following IRB approval, the lead author collected online survey data among California and Florida residents in 2021 (N=2100; 49.9% female; 8.4% Black; 45.1% renters; 20% reporting annual income below $21,000). Energy burden was measured as proportion of household monthly income spent on utilities; utilities hardship was defined on a 5-point scale as the frequency of: 1) keeping dwelling at an unsafe or unhealthy temperature to save energy, 2) reducing expenses on other necessities like food and medicine to afford utility bills, and 3) receiving a disconnection threat from utility service providers; psychological stress was measured on a 5-point scale as the frequency of feeling: 1) nervous, anxious or on edge, 2) down, repressed or hopeless, 3) having trouble concentrating, and 4) not being able to stop or control worrying as a result of not being able to pay for utilities. Group differences were tested using ANOVAs and factorial ANOVAs; psychological stress scores were regressed on vulnerability positionalities, energy burden, and utilities hardship using OLS multivariate linear regression.

Results: The ANOVAs showed that among households with higher energy medical needs (EMNs), Black/Latino and low-income women tended to have higher energy burdens than their counterparts. Low-income women, low-income homeowners (LIH) and homeowners of color with more EMNs had higher energy burdens. However, Black or Latino homeowners had the highest energy burdens compared to their counterparts. LIHs reported higher mean psychological stress due to utilities hardship than higher income groups. The regression model indicated that higher level utility hardship (B=.292, p<.001) was the strongest predictor of psychological stress, followed by age (B=-.178, p<.001), increased energy consumption behavior (B =.158, p <.001), higher energy burden (B=.113, p<.001), environmental concern (B=.109, p<.001), male residents (B =.-101, p <.001), EMN (B=.049, p<.05), and renter status (B=.046, p<.05).

Discussion: These findings support the concentrated disadvantage framework in showing that energy insecurity is correlated with a constellation of psycho-social-health factors. Gender and racial disparities suggest how socio/cultural-level factors such as sexism and racism may indirectly impede economic mobility through household energy burdens. Moreover, LIHs may be at unique risk for energy insecurity, perhaps due to housing quality and age contributing to energy inefficiency, e.g., drafty windows and older plumbing. Future research can advance this work by testing the significance of system-level factors like social services availables for utilities assistance, regional cost of utilities, and housing segregation. Results empirically support policy interventions based on utilities assistance as a strategy to alleviate economic disadvantage and its negative impacts on psycho-emotional well-being among women, persons of color, and persons with disabilities.