Off the grid

A flood of federal aid often fails to reach America’s poorest families

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The south end of Peoria, Ill., is home to many abandoned houses.

PEORIA, Ill. — In early March, with the weather warming and her day of reckoning with the power company fast approaching, Shawna Brewer slid her bill from the envelope and tried not to cry. She owed $4,242.44.

It was the beginning of another month for Shawna, 38, in which her main goal was survival.

Like millions of Americans, she was not just poor, she was poor in ways that often rendered her unaccounted for by many of the government aid programs and charitable groups that could offer help. Her blighted Zip code had become the sort of place where hundreds of families could lose their electricity; few would complain and no one in a position of power or influence would even notice.

Illinois law prohibited winter cutoffs for nonpayment, but Shawna knew that the disconnections would start again soon, and she knew that she would likely be at the top of the power company’s list. “I’ve got a $4,000 light bill that I have no flipping idea how I’m going to pay,” she said. “As soon as it gets warm, we’re going to get shut off.”

Today, the federal government is in the midst of one of the biggest expansions of the social safety net in U.S. history, committing $5 trillion over the last year to keeping American families afloat. President Biden predicted the flood of aid could cut child poverty in half.

And yet for all its successes, the trillions in aid have often failed to reach the poorest Americans in places like the south end of Peoria. Because many in Shawna’s neighborhood have jobs that paid them in cash and because they didn’t report their income to the government, they were unable to qualify for unemployment insurance. Because they moved frequently, failed to file taxes or owed fines for back child support or past criminal activity, they often didn’t receive their full stimulus checks.

As the pandemic dragged on month after month, hundreds struggled simply to keep the lights on. Last fall, 5.4 percent of all residences in Shawna’s 61605 Zip code — about 300 houses — were cut off for failing to pay their power bill. Another 250 houses in a neighboring Zip code — or about 4 percent of all residences — also lost power.

The disconnections, which were reported to the state government by private utilities, should have been a flashing red light that the social safety net was missing Peoria’s poorest.

And yet the cutoffs throughout Peoria’s south end went largely unnoticed. Local charities with money to help with power bills reported no surge in requests for assistance. City officials speculated that the disconnection statistics must be wrong. “They don’t seem real,” said Ross Black, Peoria’s community development director. “We get calls any time someone loses power. … Our phones would have been ringing off the hook.”

One of those unseen people who lost power last fall was Shawna. After four or five days without electricity or gas, she said she switched the bill to her fiance’s name, leading the power company to believe that she, her 11-year-old son and her fiance were new tenants. Her power was still on when the state’s winter moratorium on disconnections kicked in on Nov. 18.

Now it was spring. Shawna couldn’t remember how much she and Theo Friedrich, her fiance, owed when the power went off; she guessed it was about $2,000. She knew they hadn’t made a payment since October. Still, the $4,242.44 they owed seemed unfathomably large — especially when set against her $300 a week salary washing dishes at a nearby diner.

She and Theo sat together at their dining room table and tried to figure out what had happened.

“They are trying to raise up prices to compensate for their losses during the pandemic,” Theo said. A roach scampered across the dining room table and Shawna flicked it away.

“Ain’t we on some kind of payment plan with them?” she asked.

But Theo ignored her. He was too immersed in the bill. “Distribution delivery charge, customer charge, qualifying infrastructure plant surcharge,” he read.

“They hate it when you call and question them,” Shawna said. “They just hang up on you.”

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Shawna looks through a stack of mail hoping for her stimulus check last month. In addition to the latest payment from the American Rescue Plan, she was also expecting part of a previous stimulus check she did not receive. Shawna leaves home for the convenience store. Shawna smokes a cigarette as she holds her Chihuahua, Snowie.

Overwhelmed by the decay that afflicted Peoria’s south end, government officials often struggled to see the suffering or dreams of people living there. Residents assumed that their problems were a low priority or a product of their own failings and didn’t seek help even when it was available.

The dynamic rendered them essentially invisible.

The cutoffs, however, did catch the eye of Steve Cicala, an economist at Tufts University, who was searching for a real-time indicator of how the poorest families in America were weathering the pandemic recession. Cicala knew that the recession’s pain wasn’t being shared equally. Wealthier Americans who could work from home and owned stocks were getting richer. Even many poorer Americans saw their savings grow last year thanks to generous unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, according to banking and credit card data.

Cicala knew such financial data often missed the country’s most impoverished citizens who don’t have credit cards or bank accounts. Electricity captured everyone.

“If you want to know where the holes in the safety net are — if people are falling through the cracks and being pushed to the limits of poverty — [electricity] data are more valuable,” Cicala said. In Illinois, the state regulatory commission required utilities to report monthly numbers on arrearages, late fees and disconnections for every Zip code, making it a perfect test case.

Cicala was stunned at what he found. Close to 1 percent of all residences in Illinois were cut off for nonpayment in October 2020. “That 1 percent comes from a whole bunch of zeros, and a really severe shock in concentrated areas,” Cicala said. “There are some places where the pain is really extraordinary.”

Before resuming disconnections, the Illinois Commerce Commission had struck a deal with the power companies that was supposed to protect the most vulnerable customers from disconnection. Those who had lost income because of the pandemic simply had to call the power company and ask for more time to pay their bill. “No written proof is necessary, but you must make the phone call,” the commission wrote in a news release.

Still, about 72,000 families in Illinois, including Shawna’s, lost power last fall. Some said they didn’t call because they didn’t believe that the electricity company would give them more time. Others called but didn’t say the right words or were connected to customer service representatives who didn’t understand the new policy.

The owner of Shawna's two-bedroom house let them stay there for free in exchange for a promise that she and her fiance, Theo, would help fix it up.
The owner of Shawna's two-bedroom house let them stay there for free in exchange for a promise that she and her fiance, Theo, would help fix it up.

Customers in majority Black and Hispanic Zip codes were about four times more likely to be disconnected for nonpayment, according to Cicala. “These results highlight that people who were already in poverty are suffering tremendously,” Cicala said.

They also suggest a broader problem. “The regulator’s goal was zero disconnections. The local safety net [in Peoria] didn’t register a crisis,” he continued. “That would suggest that our social safety net is in grave need of repair.”

Cicala was working temporarily in Zurich and teaching remotely when he published his research. He’d never actually been to Peoria. His paper — “The Incidence of Extreme Economic Stress: Evidence from Utility Disconnections” — offered one view of the recession.

Life on the south end of Peoria provided a more visceral and human view. Shawna was drinking her morning coffee last fall before work when the power company came for her. She spotted the white truck through her glass storm door. By the time she reached the front yard, one of the power company workers was climbing the wood pole on her corner, across the street from a house that had been boarded up for at least a decade.

“You have some f---ing nerve shutting us off during a pandemic!” she screamed.

Inside, Seth was playing video games. “Why are they turning off the power?” he asked Theo, who Seth had come to think of as his father.

“Because we don’t have the money to pay the bill,” Seth remembered him saying.

Soon Shawna’s neighbors were gathering and asking if she was going to be okay. “Another day in the life of Shawna Brewer,” she recalled thinking.

The same scene was playing out all across the south end. A cabdriver returned from her 12-hour overnight shift to find that there was no electricity. She owed $535.17. An out-of-work truck driver woke up and noticed that his bathroom light was off. “That’s weird,” he recalled thinking. “I know I left it on.” It took him three weeks to raise the $513 he needed to get his power back.

Some turned to neighborhood Facebook groups for assistance. “REACHING OUT FOR HELP! IT IS URGENT!” a 40-year-old former nurse who was rebuilding her life after opioid addiction and a divorce wrote on a community page. She owed $1,038 and had tried unsuccessfully to apply for federal low-income heating assistance aid. “Since I do not have my 14-month-old’s social security card they cannot help me,” she continued. “I can afford a hotel room for tonight, but that’s it. Please please please! Any resources would be greatly appreciated!” After about a week with no lights, she got help from a local charity.

A few miles away, a laid-off teacher’s aide called the power company, which wanted a partial payment of at least $170 to restore services to his house. “Lady, you’re not listening,” he recalled telling the power company representative. “I do not have any money right now. I can’t pay my car note or my rent.”

Most of those who were cut off scrambled to get the power back on in a week or two. They opened accounts in a relative’s or partner’s name, like Shawna, or borrowed from friends or family. A few received funds from aid programs.

Others tried to ride out the outages in the cold and the dark. Deion Lutz, 24, a cook earning $10 an hour, made it until January. “I’d cuddle up with my dogs under three blankets,” he said. Then the temperatures plunged below zero and Lutz, worried that he might freeze to death, moved into his sister’s basement. “It was kind of embarrassing,” he said. “I was down on my ass and I’ve never been that way before.” Shortly after he left, someone broke out the front windows and ransacked his home. Today, the floor in the front room is covered with trash, feces and what’s left of Lutz’s possessions.

“I don’t even want my s--- now,” Lutz said. “It’s beyond disgusting.” He’s planning to move to Florida. In all likelihood his former home will have to be boarded up. Another little piece of Peoria will die.

The shut-down Illinois Furniture warehouse in Peoria, where nearly 1 in 4 jobs in the 1990s was in manufacturing. Today, it’s 1 in 8.
The shut-down Illinois Furniture warehouse in Peoria, where nearly 1 in 4 jobs in the 1990s was in manufacturing. Today, it’s 1 in 8.

The last few months have been difficult for Shawna too. At a time when the government was offering trillions in aid to those struggling through the pandemic recession and billions to those behind on their power bills, Shawna and the federal government often failed to connect.

In November the governor halted indoor dining, and Shawna was furloughed from the restaurant for two months. She didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits of as much as $440 a week because her job paid cash and she didn’t report her modest income to the federal government. As far as the state and federal government were concerned, she hadn’t been working.

Her fiance, who works at a junkyard towing wrecked cars and stripping parts, lost income as well. Stay-at-home orders and shuttered offices had cut into the number of cars on the road, and he said his pay had slipped from about $1,500 a month to as little as $500 a month. He didn’t receive most of his stimulus money because he owed back child support.

The money Shawna and Theo did get went to pay the water bill, which was costing them about $190 a month because of a leak that they couldn’t seem to find. They spent another $600-$700 in February to replace their home’s broken furnace. The owner let them stay for free in the crumbling two-bedroom house, which had gaping holes in the living room walls, in exchange for a promise that they would help fix it up.

The hardest blow for Shawna came this winter when a gunfight broke out on Shawna’s block and someone fired three bullets that lodged into her home’s siding.

Seth was playing inside just feet from where the bullets struck the house’s facade. He took a painting of a snow-covered mountain cabin that he had fished from the garbage and hung it over the spot in the interior wall where police had dug to dislodge one of the rounds. Two weeks later he moved in with his 20-year-old sister, 10 miles away in Pekin, telling his mother that he was too afraid to stay in the house. Losing her son left her depressed and made it hard to sleep or think about anything else. “I just can’t look forward to the future right now because my son isn’t living with me,” Shawna said.

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Shawna stacks clean bowls in the kitchen of the Garden Street Cafe. Theo drives Shawna to the convenience store and then work one day last month. The cafe where Shawna works is the only restaurant on the south end of the city that has tables.

About a week after she opened the massive power bill, Shawna was getting ready for her dishwashing job. She was determined to feel better about herself despite another sleepless night, the headache that radiated down the back of her skull, and the fear that she was failing the person who meant the most to her in the world: her 11-year-old son.

So before she headed off to work, she decided to put on some of the makeup that she had bought a few days earlier at the dollar store. She dabbed her cheeks with concealer and drew the eyeliner pencil above her lashes.

“I don’t know,” she said, exhaling. “I’m not really feeling it.”

As they did almost every morning, Shawna and Theo stopped on the way to work to buy cigarettes and lottery scratch-offs, which they played together at the end of the day.

“It’s kind of our original thing,” she said of the $10-$20 a day habit.

“Maybe one of these days we’ll win enough to take a day off,” Theo said as he pulled up in front of the restaurant where Shawna had worked since September. She kissed him goodbye and rushed inside.

Theo kisses Shawna as he drops her off at her job. Shawna hoped to use some of her stimulus money to pay off $825 in fines so she could get her driver's license back and get a better job.
Theo kisses Shawna as he drops her off at her job. Shawna hoped to use some of her stimulus money to pay off $825 in fines so she could get her driver's license back and get a better job.

The Garden Street Cafe traced the history of Peoria and so many other struggling Rust Belt cities. Peoria began as a whiskey town, and the cafe’s founder had worked at the Hiram Walker distillery, once the largest in the world, before it closed in 1981. He opened the diner down the street one year later.

In its early days the restaurant drew a steady stream of shoppers from Szold’s department store — now the City of Refuge Worship Center — across the street. Bankers in suits and ties came in for lunch. So too did workers from Caterpillar Inc., which was based in Peoria and sold mining and manufacturing equipment worldwide. When the wind was right, the smell of fresh loaves from the Butternut Bread Company, a half-mile away, filled the air.

The Butternut factory closed in 2012, a loss of 130 jobs. Six years later, Caterpillar moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago, complaining that it couldn’t lure top-flight executives to Peoria. In the early 1990s, nearly 1 in 4 jobs in Peoria was in manufacturing. Today, it’s 1 in 8.

Shawna’s father, who worked as a mechanic and in machine shops, battled alcoholism. Her mother found a job at a now-shuttered hot dog stand. One of Shawna’s most vivid childhood memories is being evicted from their house when her parents couldn’t come up with the rent.

The sheriff deputies left their possessions piled up on the sidewalk. Shawna and her brother moved into a room in her aunt’s house, while her parents dragged a mattress into the garage and nailed insulation to the walls to keep out the winter cold. By 13, Shawna had stopped going to school. By 18, she had given birth to two daughters and was struggling with an addiction to methamphetamines.

“My childhood wasn’t very nice, but it is what it is,” she said.

In Peoria's south end, hundreds of homes had their power cut off last fall for failing to pay their power bill.
In Peoria's south end, hundreds of homes had their power cut off last fall for failing to pay their power bill.

Today, the 61605 Zip code is among the poorest in the country. The area is home to four liquor stores and zero supermarkets. A Kroger and a Save A Lot both shut down in the last three years, leaving behind only corner stores that sell milk for $4 a gallon, twice the price of a grocery store. The Garden Street Cafe is the only restaurant on the south end — fast food or otherwise — with tables.

For Shawna, landing the six-day-a-week dishwashing job was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak year. Rick Burr, the cafe's owner, recently encouraged Shawna to get her food handling license so she could help with cooking and serving. Shawna took it as an exciting sign. “I think it shows he likes my work,” she said.

A television propped on a cardboard box in the restaurant’s kitchen was playing daytime talk shows that revolved around promiscuous teens and paternity tests. “That ain’t my baby. She’s a ho!” someone was screaming on “Maury.” Shawna kept one ear on the action as she washed dishes.

Most of the cafe’s customers were regulars. “How you doing Kenny?” she asked as she cleared a table. He came in every day for a to-go box of fried shrimp that he washed down with a bucket of five beers at the bar next door.

“Still breathing,” Kenny replied.

“Well, that’s a good thing,” Shawna said.

A woman with a poof of white hair, whom Shawna had known since childhood and referred to as her “aunt,” occupied a corner table. Shawna’s favorite customers were Delores and her daughter Chris, who had spent 41 years working at Caterpillar before taking early retirement in 2009. Her last job was as a personal assistant to the company’s chief operating officer. The women lingered over bowls of oatmeal.

“They talk to you because they want to,” Shawna said, “not because you work here.”

Shawna smokes a cigarette while taking a break from work.
Shawna smokes a cigarette while taking a break from work.

Shawna had set up informed delivery on her phone, which gave her a daily, digital preview of the letters bound for her mailbox. She checked her account every few hours, hoping for her latest stimulus check, due to arrive any day. At $2,800, the March check was going to be the biggest one yet. A little after noon, she spotted a letter that looked like it was from the federal government.

Around 2:30 p.m. she raced home to check her mailbox. Empty. Either the mail was late or, she worried, someone had stolen her check. “It’s like the universe is against me,” she groaned.

She spotted a little girl playing in her front yard. “Kai Kai!” she called. “Can you ask your mom if the mail has come yet?” The puzzled girl didn’t answer.

“Hey, Frog!” she yelled to a neighbor up the street. But he couldn’t hear her over the rap music blaring from his car.

She stopped three girls in matching school uniforms strolling up the sidewalk. One was carrying an envelope. “Letter from school,” the girl told her without breaking stride.

When the postal worker finally arrived, Shawna raced to the front door and flung it open, startling him. “Oh, for the love of God!” he exclaimed.

Shawna tore open the letter from the IRS. No check, just blocks of bureaucratic prose: “The U.S. Department of the Treasury issued you a second economic impact payment (EIP2) as provided by the COVID-related Tax Relief Act of 2020.”

Shawna had received only half of the $1,200 she was entitled to in January because she had filed her taxes incorrectly. The form letter seemed to be saying that the rest of her money was on its way.

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Shawna and Theo dismantle electronics and sell their internal parts to make extra money. The two buy cigarettes and lottery scratch-off tickets almost every morning before work. “Maybe one of these days we'll win enough to take a day off,” Theo said.

“Wouldn’t it be crazy if you got all your checks on the same day?” one of Shawna’s co-workers at the cafe asked her. Her $600 check was set to arrive in a matter of days. As part of the American Rescue Plan, she was due the $2,800 stimulus as well as a $250-a-month child tax credit that would start in July and net her about $3,000 over the next 12 months.

The prospect of all that money was enough to spur her dreams.

Sometimes she talked about using the money to pay off $825 in fines so that she could get her driver’s license back and land a better job. A Caterpillar subcontractor was paying $12-$15 an hour plus overtime, but the warehouse wasn’t on a bus line.

Sometimes she and Theo talked about trying to fix up the house. Black mold climbed the wall in the kitchen where the wallpaper had peeled away. There were holes in the linoleum floor and in the walls in the living room.

More than anything Shawna wanted to bring home her son, who had been living with his 20-year-old sister, Haylee Creamer, since February.

In mid-March, Haylee took him on a week-long trip to visit family in Georgia. Shawna tried to call him at least once a day. “Once we get this stimulus check, what do you think about Mommy and you going back to Georgia to visit?” she asked on one of her calls. “We’ll take care of the bills and see what’s left.”

Then there was the $4,242.44 power bill.

The stimulus package passed in March included $4.5 billion in funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helped with utility bills. But the pandemic, which forced families to navigate the application process online, was making it harder for people to get the aid. When Shawna was cut off last fall, the bill was in her eldest daughter Samantha Creamer’s name, further complicating matters.

Even as arrearages and late fees soared in 2020, the number of low-income families in Illinois taking part in the utility assistance program fell to 221,000 households, 30,000 fewer than in 2019, according to state officials. Only about 18 percent of eligible families received the aid in Illinois last year.

Peoria residents Charles and Kelli Martin offer a free food pantry at their home.
Peoria residents Charles and Kelli Martin offer a free food pantry at their home.

Cuts over the last decade to the number of social workers made connecting even harder. A decade ago, the Peoria County Health Administrator received a list each month of households that lost power and could dispatch a case manager to help them apply for assistance. But the health department stopped requesting the monthly list when it eliminated many of its case workers.

The cuts left Shawna largely unknown to the agencies that might have been able to help her.

The pressure also weighed heavily on Shawna’s daughter Haylee, who had committed to raising her 11-year-old brother.

Shawna was 18 and struggling with a drug addiction when Haylee, who was raised by her grandparents, was born. In high school, Haylee had posted her grades each semester on her Facebook page and insisted that she was going to attend Harvard University. In 2018, she graduated 10th in her high school class and, instead of Harvard, headed off to community college.

Today she works 12-hour shifts as a certified nursing assistant and was recently accepted into Illinois Central College’s nursing school. She and her fiance were determined to raise Seth, who struggled with learning disabilities and had missed stretches of classes during the pandemic.

“Trying to do [online] school with him is a struggle,” Haylee said. “It’s rough but it’s worth it.”

Sometimes she, too, felt unseen. She was doing all the right things — going to school, working long hours, paying her bills — but no one was rushing to help her. “I am out here busting my ass at work,” she said. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m barely making it. It seems like no one cares when you are doing something.”

In late March, Shawna was still waiting for her stimulus check to come in the mail; still hoping she could find a home that would be fit for Seth; still wondering where she and Theo would go if their power was disconnected again.

On a warm spring day, she finished her shift at the restaurant and started walking home past shuttered businesses and recently abandoned homes, satellite TV dishes hanging forlornly off their worn siding. She had been looking online at a small house for sale in Yates City, Ill., even though she knew the $13,000 down payment was well beyond her means.

“Right now, Seth is going to stay at his sister’s house until a miracle happens,” she said, “because that’s what we need.”

She pushed open the door to her home. Family pictures hung crooked on walls coated with a brown film from thousands of cigarettes. There were holes in the drywall. Old circuit boards that she and Theo recycled to pick up extra cash littered the floor. The television cast a dim blue glow.

In January, Shawna had used part of her stimulus check to sign up for cable but had to let it go after only a few weeks to pay other bills. She half-jokingly told Theo that she left the TV on hoping that it would motivate him to find some way to restore the service — to provide a flicker of entertainment in their lives. For now, though, there was no picture. No sound. All that remained was a message from the cable company in white, block letters: “Something is not quite right.”

Shawna hopes to find her stimulus check in the mail.
Shawna hopes to find her stimulus check in the mail.

Julie Tate contributed to this report. Graphics by Joe Fox.

About this story

Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof; Design and development by Garland Potts.; Copy editing by Jamie Zega

Greg Jaffe is a national reporter with The Washington Post who spent more than a decade covering the military. He’s the co-author of “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army.”