January’s “Polar Vortex” broke records for the lowest temperatures in many cities that had lasted for 50 years to 100 years. Millions of people across the East coast and Midwest endured temperatures much below normal and all 50 states experienced freezing temperatures. Southern states, not used to freezing weather, were ill-prepared to handle it. Fox News reported that there were 21 deaths related to the cold. The homeless population was particularly vulnerable. America’s poor suffered the worst effects of the extreme cold weather; not only the homeless, but also families on social assistance and the working poor.

Cuts to Energy Assistance

Many low-income families across the country were not able to heat their homes this winter due to last year’s budget cuts. In 2013, Congress cut funding to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program by $155 million. Since 2010 funding for this program has dropped from $5.1 billion to $3.32. While many families cannot sufficiently heat their homes, approximately 300,000 families cannot afford to heat their homes at all.

Both the number of households receiving aid and the amount of aid households receive has been cut. Since 2010, the percentage of heat covered by the Low Home Income Energy Assistance Program has dropped from 52.5 percent to 41.5 percent. As this funding has been cut, the cost of fuel has gone up; the cost of electricity has risen by 7 percent since last year and the cost of natural gas has risen by 14 percent.

Low-Income Families Struggle to Heat Their Homes

Three children died in Hammond, Indiana in January 2013 in a house fire when their parents used propane space heaters to heat their home. Andre Young was renting a house for himself, his wife and their five children but had been unable to pay their utility bills. Their water, gas and electricity had been cut off for several months.  When a spark from the propane heater engulfed the house in flames, Andre ran inside to try and save his children, all under 7 years old. He was able to save two children before he collapsed in the snow outside of the house. A 4-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a seven month old baby died. Andre was sent to hospital in critical condition.

The average family in Indiana spends $530 on heat between November and March, but that cost would have been much higher this winter. The combination of the cuts to energy assistance and the abnormally cold winter has left many families unable to cover the cost of heating their homes.

Choosing Between Health and Food

In 2013, Congress cut spending on food stamps and 47 million Americans lost food stamp benefits. The high cost of heating during this year’s polar vortex has left many poor families having to choose between heating their homes and feeding their kids. There has been an increase in the use of food banks and soup kitchens this year. Feeding America recently reported that 46 percent of its clients have to choose between paying for food and paying heating and other utility bills.

– Elizabeth Brown

Sources: Huffington Post, Huffington Post, Think Progress, Salon
Photo: Midtown Blogger

Poverty Vortex
If you live in the United States or have been paying any attention to global news over the past week, you have probably heard a lot of discussion and speculation about the icy weather phenomenon that meteorologists are calling the “polar vortex.”

According to Mark Fischetti of Scientific American, the polar vortex is a wind pattern that circles around the Arctic, essentially keeping cooler air flowing North rather than South. The icy temperatures that are being felt all over the United States are a result of this polar vortex shifting South and taking icy gusts along with it.

Meteorologists all over the country called the icy conditions “life-threatening” and warned Americans to stay inside and stay bundled. Unfortunately, several cities experienced widespread electricity outages and frozen pipelines, causing schools to close and many people to temporarily evacuate their homes.

It is often during times like these when it is important for us to think to ourselves: what about those who live like this every single day?

Icy temperatures aside, a similar panoptic pull and tug of the polar vortex can be compared to the sweeping destruction of extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is not isolated within one particular arena of life rather it affects each and every facet of daily life for almost 1.2 billion people.

Although many citizens of developed countries are aware that extreme poverty exists, it often takes a drastic event like the polar vortex to happen in our own lives before we stop and consider how it must be like to never have basic daily needs met.

Consider these statistics:

  • Approximately 190 million Americans felt the effects of the polar vortex.
  • 1.22 billion people felt the effects of extreme poverty in 2010.
  • 40,000 people in Indiana suffered through an electricity outage during the polar vortex.
  • 589 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa do not have reliable access to electricity.

The dictionary defines “vortex” in several ways. One of these definitions states “something regarded as drawing into its powerful current everything that surrounds it.”

While America quickly learned that the polar vortex did indeed draw everything into its powerful current, the “poverty vortex” in the developing world functions in a similar manner.

Electricity is a great example of this. While 589 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have electricity, this does not mean that it only affects the energy sector within a given country. Rather, a lack of reliable access to electricity affects health care standards and educational accessibility. The cyclical nature of extreme poverty is its own poverty vortex.

However, just as icy temperatures began to subside after a few days and most of America started functioning normally again, the same relief is possible for those in the developing world by breaking the poverty vortex.

By drawing upon our own struggles as a chance to learn more about how people in the developing world live on a daily basis, we can begin to understand how and why the cycle of poverty must be broken. Pick up your phone today and call your members of Congress: tell them that the poverty vortex exists and must be broken.

– Brandi Geurkink

Sources: RT USA, Scientific American Blog Network, The Clarion-Ledger, The World Bank, The Dictionary
Photo: International Business Times