Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Who's getting pinched here?

The Daily News has a piece today looking at the programs that PGW has to help subsidize heating costs for poor and elderly customers, and the burden that these programs distribute to paying customers. When I started out, I thought that they might be identifying a real problem, like we have with the health care system, of spiralling costs carried by an ever tinier fraction of the population. However, while both energy costs and the wealth divide have increased in recent years, its effect locally is actually pretty small.

Look at this graphic, which summarizes their data. A key thing to notice is that the axis for the bar graph (the towers representing paying customers) is truncated to show only the top 10% of the scale, so that a total decline of 3% in customers appears as a cutting in half of the bar. Dramatic, but misleading. The dollar scale is proportional, but it's worth noting that even a 30% increase in this "burden" over the last three years represents only $85 annually for paying customers, which is probably close to being lost in the noise of varying temperatures and rising prices.
PGW officials now say that because of soaring natural-gas prices, the social programs no longer make fiscal sense as the utility's paying customers, including thousands of working poor, face an ever greater burden.
It's reasonable to question whether "19% of the average bill" going toward these subsidies is sustainable, whether nonpayment by customers who can afford to pay should be punished more severely, and whether a company that spanned both city and suburbs could do a better job of distributing the assistance. However, I think that the resentment that such a story would build up toward "deadbeats" is a bit blunted by the realization that it's something like $7 per month for most folks, even at current levels. At the very least, I'd like to see a breakdown of the amount that's due to nonpayment by delinquents versus pay-outs to the needy, before the utility uses a skewed argument to weasel out of its social obligations.


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