No need to buy another cheap Chinese sweater to stave off hypothermia for the shivering Grandma subsisting on a meager Social Security check. This year, instead of her turning down the thermostat to 50 so she can eat, she can stay warm as toast and even see what she's doing as the lights stay on while she mails in her prepaid gift card with her utility bill.
This is definitely a win-win-win-win proposition. First and foremost, the utility wins. It gets paid early -- before it provides even a single kilowatt of electricity, or one cubic foot of gas! Just think of how happy the investors will be with the added dividends. And if there is any money left over, they'll even be able to toy with the idea of spending some of it on infrastructure improvement, like trimming some trees that have a tendency to knock down power lines during the periodic freak storms that are becoming ever more periodic. Customers left in the dark for weeks may see outages reduced to mere days. Gas lines that are inspected and replaced may reduce neighborhood explosions. Of course, this is optional on the part of the utilities. As with every corporation, the American way is to reward investors first, CEOs second, customers third, and employees maybe. Disasters due in part to poor maintenance invariably come with the price tag of a rate increase.
But back to the gift cards -- according to the marketing, you win too. You have the satisfaction of knowing that your gift will keep your loved one warm and bright. You can even be anonymous. And the recipient wins: he or she will be spared the embarrassment of collection calls threatening cut-off, or the indignity of having to prove imminent starvation and dire penury to Social Service agencies in order to qualify for a one-time government heating bill handout. And last but not least, the middle-man wins: companies handling the gift card business for utilities will get their generous cut, too. Who said there are no winners in an economic depression?
Utility companies nationwide are facing hard times. Delinquent accounts are reaching epidemic proportions, and most states have laws that forbid them from shutting people off in the dead of winter. Right now, they are forced by the states to simply reduce the wattage to the delinquents until they pay up. In other words, provide just enough heat for survival and enough light so they don't trip and break a bone. But if they reach for that remote and attempt to watch TV? Zap! You cannot have poor people enjoying themselves in the middle of a depression, even during the holidays.
At least one utility company is even marketing its gift cards for those hard-to-shop-for affluent family members and friends who have everything -- but who still "might appreciate a little help with their energy bill." What a relief. Now I know just what to get for Mayor Bloomberg. I can imagine the way his eyes will light up when he receives his $10 Con Ed gift certificate from an anonymous fan. It'll bring back fond memories of the day he froze out Zuccotti Park by first confiscating the OWS generators and then completely bulldozing down the tents.