“Gee my account is in credit!”: Qualitative component of the Warm Homes Pilot Study
Kimberley O’Sullivan – Masters 2008
Background Fuel poverty, or the inability to heat one’s home to World Health Organisation recommended standards for less than 10% of household income (Boardman, 1991), is a significant social and public health problem in New Zealand. Those particularly at risk of fuel poverty include older people and those with chronic illness or disability. Despite estimates that around 10-14% of the total population of New Zealand may have been in fuel poverty using 2001 data, (Lloyd, 2006) limited research of the phenomenon has been undertaken to date.
My thesis describes the qualitative component of the Warm Homes Pilot Study, a pilot for a randomised community intervention trial undertaken in the winter of 2007 in association with Tu Kotahi Maori Asthma Trust. The study was designed to raise indoor temperatures and reduce morbidity among older people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a respiratory condition that is sensitive to cold temperatures and has a significant burden in New Zealand. Participants were given a $500 electricity ‘voucher’ (funded through the Hutt Mana Charitable Trust), which was directly credited to their electricity accounts.
Method The method used for data analysis in this study was Labovian Structural Narrative Analysis, developed by Labov and Waletzky (1967), and further expanded by Labov (1997, 2007). This method uses close examination of the structure of talk, in order to more easily access the function and content of the data (Riessman, 2008). Using this method to analyse the data proved invaluable, as the data covered a range of topics due to the nature of the study, however this method allowed the participants’ narratives to be kept ‘whole’.
Results and Discussion The results of this study showed that fuel poverty is a real problem experienced by the participants and their community. Participants identified housing quality and improvements that could be made to improve the thermal efficiency of their houses to make achieving adequate indoor temperatures more affordable. Heating patterns and methods for coping with the cold were described, and five of the participants indicated that being cold has a negative effect on their illness. Methods of saving electricity to mitigate electricity expenses, and trade-offs made to afford electricity were described. Some participants also spoke about their fear of disconnection because of their reliance on medical equipment. While participants gave mixed reactions to the description ‘fuel poverty’, they believed that fuel poverty is a problem experienced by people in their own community and within New Zealand. The use of electricity vouchers directly credited to electricity accounts to reduce fuel poverty was unanimously supported by the participants, particularly for older people who were identified by the group as often struggling with electricity costs. There was some disagreement between participants about how best to benefit from electricity vouchers, suggesting that not all of the benefit was taken as increased heating.
This study provides some social context to the problem of fuel poverty in New Zealand through exploration of the narratives around home heating and health of a particularly disadvantaged group. It also raises the problem of the extra expenses incurred through using prepayment meters, and significant hardship caused by fuel poverty and electricity disconnection.
This study has been used to inform the main study, by providing evidence that better education is needed for participants to more fully understand what their role in the study is, and how important it is to achieve recommended indoor temperatures in order to test the hypothesis. It is hoped that this study will also stimulate further research and discussion about how best to address fuel poverty in New Zealand.