Forty Two Hundred

Have you ever read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams? If you ever need a really good laugh, please do.  Beyond the humor in this immortal and embarrassingly funny four-part trilogy of books, Adams also gave the world something profound. He gave us the answer to the ultimate question of life the universe and everything, and it is “42.” Ask Google the same question and you get the same response, 42.  The rule of 42 also holds true for this article, or more precisely, 42 x 102 or $4,200. This is the amount of money needed to lift a family from an all too common but largely unknown to the American public condition called “energy poverty.”

In most of the world, “energy poverty” refers to the lack of access of underprivileged populations to clean affordable energy thus inhibiting their economic development. However, in the United States, the challenge of energy poverty is a bit different. Here it is where many Americans are severely impacted by increasing energy and energy related costs such as food, and its effects are insidious. According to the 2011 University of Arizona report,  “Making the link between energy and poverty” by Ardeth Barnhart, energy poverty is defined as households spending 10% or more of their income on fuel.

The impacts of energy poverty are not as simple as having to cut down on the utility bill. It goes much further than that. According to the U of Az report, 21% or 1.4 million Arizonans now live in poverty. That’s an annual income of less than $21,954 for a family of four. We are ahead of only Mississippi in this statistic. This is where the rule of 42 comes in. $4,200 is about what many people pay annually in utilities, an average of $250/month for electricity and about $100/month for natural gas and water. For an impoverished family that’s 19% of their annual income or more, while this “energy burden” on the average American household is only 3%. If the December 14, 2011 Arizona Republic headline that 1 in 2 households in Arizona are in low income status is true (click here to read article:, then energy poverty may be far more common and hits far closer to home than even the U of Az numbers suggest.

The impact of this condition can be devastating particularly on the children. When your disposable income is spent keeping the lights on and the roof over ones head, difficult decisions must be made.  You begin to make do and skimp. Now “making do” is a time honored American tradition. In some cases it stimulates innovation and the desire to make things better no matter what. However, all too often it begins a negative feedback loop that can lead to despair and desperation. One of the first things to go is watering the front lawn. I have seen this condition in many parts of our city, front lawns dead simply because the family can’t afford the water. This naturally depresses home and community pride as well as housing values by degrading the esthetics of the neighborhood. Frequently to save money poor nutritional choices such as fast food for the children predominate. It is much easier and takes much less expensive time to buy a TV dinner than to purchase the fixings and cook a good meal. This is likely a contributing factor to the epidemic of obesity and nutritionally related diseases we are now seeing such as diabetes. If you are sick you can’t work and the medical bills further exacerbate the situation. So much pain caused by the lack of so little money.

So what to do? Government programs such as Energize Phoenix and The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) help some but there is just not enough money. So time for some ingenious thinking. Ingenuity is when you apply an idea to a problem. Sustainability (the ability to survive and prosper for the short and long term) can be created by harnessing and enhancing local social, environmental and economic resources to address a need. In other words, we can use what we know about sustainability from the bottom up to solve contemporary problems. This kind of thinking has given us a powerful new set of solutions to apply to this challenge and they go far beyond solar panels.

Across our city there are growing numbers of sustainability-based programs that are directly or indirectly addressing the issues created by energy poverty. It is difficult to know of them for often not much is said. However, allow me to name a few that I am aware of or have been involved in. The 3000 Club’s Market on the Move for example rescues perfectly good inspected food destined to be wasted simply because it did not arrive to the right place on time or other trivialities and provides it to the public for only a donation to cover transportation. They are now working with the Chefs Association to insure that communities not only have access to this food but also know how to prepare it. The Green Revival program at Southminster Presbyterian Church of which Local First is now a contributor gives away to families in need an Energy Conservation Kit consisting of CFL light bulbs, low flow showerheads and other equipment that when used properly can reduce an annual power bill by $500, enough to reduce the energy burden on an impoverished family by 11%. Southminster will also be working with local home owners to demonstrate how to use now bare front lawns to grow food simultaneously addressing the nutrition, home value and community esthetics issues. With support from Audubon Arizona, a “Together Green grant” and others, Arizona Interfaith Power and Light (AzIPL), an ecumenical organization of faith based institutions fighting climate change works with congregations to reduce the power bills thus carbon footprints of their buildings in inner city areas through their “Footprints of Faith” program.

The Gardens on Broadway in South Phoenix run by Mentor Kids USA and Tiger Mountain Foundation in association with local landowners such as Tanner Gardens are changing the nutritional availability of the area. As the final entry on this grossly incomplete list with a focus on Community Sustainability, add the reopening of the Rev. Dr. G. Benjamin Brooks, Sr., Academy (named after my father) by the Roosevelt School District as a “Community School” focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at 32nd street and Wier. Equipped with a 13,000 square foot greenhouse the school will provide students of all ages with a strong learning experience pertaining to community health, well-being, culinary, sustainability and more. The greenhouse will be a learning lab growing seedlings, various herbs and seasonal crops through traditional gardens and aquaponics.

Everyone must eat and healthy foods create healthy communities. With good food in their bellies children can think and better achieve in school while the opportunities for family productivity, self-sufficiency, community resiliency and thus sustainability also increase. Every dollar saved in energy conservation or home food production can go to offset the utility bill helping to tip the point back from disaster to hope. Sound Pollyannaish? No, all of these things are happening right now and are beginning to have real impact. The question that remains is, “what can you contribute?” The invitation is open.

-George Brooks, Jr., PhD.