ABC Adds to Parade of Hapless Economic Victims, Now No Electricity

Four days after NBC centered a story around an elderly couple forced to move “into their van, sleeping on a mattress in the back” while “high food costs have meant” they've “gone hungry,” ABC's World News caught up Tuesday night with a nearly as silly anecdotal report on how families in Minnesota can no longer afford electricity. In the first of two families she showcased, reporter Gigi Stone relayed Julie Tkachuk's plight: “After paying for more expensive gas and groceries, Julie had no money for the heating bills left over from the winter.” Then Stone described the predicament of a family whose father “says business at his moving company is down 35 percent this year. There just wasn't enough money for the power bill.”

Referring to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Stone acknowledged that “there's federal assistance for people who can't afford their utility bills,” but she ominously intoned, “the number of applicants reached the highest point in 16 years.” ABC then aired a soundbite from Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Director's Association, an advocacy group for LIHEAP spending. The group's April 25 press release (PDF) hyping “the number of households receiving LIHEAP funds this year is the highest in 16 years” also, however, disclosed a fact ABC didn't mention -- that increase is merely 3.8 percent over fiscal year 2007 with the number of households on the dole in Minnesota rising from 120,765 to 126,500, hardly a huge jump.

The National Energy Assistance Director's Association (NEADA) always sees the sky falling. Check out its press release page for some of the dire headlines from long before the economy turned slower and well before the current increase in energy prices:
July 11, 2007: “NEADA Study: 1.2 Million Households Disconnected from Utility Service”

June 19, 2006: “States Report Highest Level of Households Receiving Energy Assistance in 13 Years”

December 22, 2005: “Applications for Energy Assistance Expected to Reach 5.6 Million Households; Some States Begin to Run Out of Funds”

September 8, 2005: “Home Heating Costs Projected to Hit Record Levels this Winter; Grim Forecast for Low Income Families”

April 26, 2004: “Low-Income Energy Crises Worsens -- National Survey Reports that Unaffordable Energy Bills Have Serious, Long-Term Impacts on Families”
Anchor Charles Gibson set up the “Closer Look” segment by highlighting the public's downbeat outlook:
More evidence tonight of how severely Americans are feeling the economic pinch. Consumer confidence, measured in the weekly ABC News poll, fell to its lowest point in 15 years. That's near its all-time low. People's assessment of their personal finances is its lowest since 1993.
Maybe that's because of the incessantly-negative media coverage focusing on a “recession” while the economy continues to grow.

My May 2 NewsBusters item, “Dire NBC: Seniors Forced to Live in Van as Golden Years 'Tarnished,'” recounted:
On the day the government reported a tenth of a point drop in the unemployment rate and two days after news of a second straight quarter of 0.6 percent GDP growth proved the nation is not in a recession, Friday's NBC Nightly News delivered a ridiculously shallow story, based on two anecdotes and a couple of advocates, to prove rising prices are forcing the elderly out of their homes and into vans and soup kitchens. Anchor Brian Williams promised “an interesting look...at the toll that rising prices, of things like gas and food, is taking on Americans living on fixed incomes.”

Chris Jansing [that's her by the van] traveled to Northridge, California, just north of Los Angeles, where she found 82-year-old Betty Weinstein, stunned by a water bill, turning to a second reverse mortgage to stay in her home. But she at least still has a home. Jansing then highlighted an even sadder case: “Rising rents forced Scott and Kate Bishop to move out of this blue house and into their van, sleeping on a mattress in the back.”

But it got worse: “And now high food costs have meant, for first time in their lives, the Bishops have gone hungry.” Jansing cited no source for her claims as she asserted: “Soup kitchens and food banks are seeing record numbers of seniors asking for help for the first time in their lives,” but “now donations here are down as middle class donors struggle to feed their own families.”
That posting noted that food costs are only expected to rise five percent this year.

Gibson's tease before the first ad break Tuesday night:
Still ahead in the news, dark days and nights for more Americans. More and more have their power cut because they can't pay the bills. It's our "Closer Look."
Transcript of the subsequent story on the Tuesday, May 6 World News:
CHARLES GIBSON: More evidence tonight of how severely Americans are feeling the economic pinch. Consumer confidence, measured in the weekly ABC News poll, fell to its lowest point in 15 years. That's near its all-time low. People's assessment of their personal finances is its lowest since 1993.

Electricity bills are a good example. Almost six million families this year needed government help to pay them. In Minnesota, 450 families a day are having their electricity shut off. So ABC's Gigi Stone went there for tonight's "Closer Look."

GIGI STONE: Julie Tkachuck is living in the dark. She can no longer afford to pay for electricity.

JULIE TKACHUCK: I got to wash clothes by hand, dry them by hand.

STONE: The single mother of three in St. Paul who has a steady job as a steel worker is embarrassed and frightened.

TKACHUCK: There's something wrong with this picture. I work hard. I come home. I take care of my kid. Why am I in this situation?

STONE: After paying for more expensive gas and groceries, Julie had no money for the heating bills left over from the winter.

TKACHUCK: Coming out of the faucet, it's freezing cold. At least letting it sit there for a little while, it's a little warmer.

STONE: Nearby in Minneapolis, another portrait of struggle. The Williams boys are sleeping in their living room because it's warmer. They did their homework in the car for light. Their dad, Antonio, says business at his moving company is down 35 percent this year. There just wasn't enough money for the power bill.

DANA WILLIAMS: I've never failed my kids where we don't have electricity. Never.

STONE: Dana Williams says the hardest part is not being able to cook or keep milk at home for her boys.

DANA WILLIAMS: I never asked to be here and I never deserved not to have electricity

STONE: The problem is emerging now because many cold weather states, like here in Minnesota, have laws to stop utility companies from disconnecting delinquent customers in the winter. Now that spring is here, those protections are over. And the companies are demanding to get paid. The utility companies say they have to be aggressive because unpaid balances drive up rates for paying customers. They've never seen delinquencies this high because energy costs have so skyrocketed. There's federal assistance for people who can't afford their utility bills, but the number of applicants reached the highest point in 16 years.

MARK WOLFE, NATIONAL ENERGY ASSISTANCE DIRECTOR'S ASSOCIATION: Energy is becoming unaffordable to people and families. And we don't have a good solution in place to help them.

STONE: People like Julie Tkachuck.

TKACHUCK: It's hard, it's stressful.

STONE: Who is losing sight of what she calls a civilized life. Gigi Stone, ABC News, St. Paul, Minnesota.

GIBSON: We have information for people who need help paying their energy bills or who want to help those who do. You can find it at our Web site, ABCNews.com.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center