Funds For Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Fall Short Of Need

January 7, 2010

Winter has hardly begun, and we’ve already had well-below-freezing temperatures–even here in Washington, D.C. I’m sitting in my warm study, thinking about the low-income households who are struggling to pay their home energy bills–or to get along without heat because their service has been cut off.

The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), is intended to help these households meet their immediate energy needs–both heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

The program has helped save millions of poor seniors, people with disabilities, other adults and their children from the impacts of unaffordable energy bills–hypothermia and heat prostration, hunger, homelessness, unmet medical needs and deaths and injuries caused by fallbacks like space heaters and stoves. But as with the rest of our safety net, millions fall through.

LIHEAP provides block grants to states, which they channel to local government agencies or nonprofits. It also includes an emergency contingency fund that the Secretary of Health and Human Services can tap to provide extra assistance, e.g., in cases of extreme weather, spikes in energy prices or unemployment.

Households qualify for a one-time payment of their past-due utility bills if their incomes are below a threshold defined by their state–generally either 150% of the federal poverty line or 60% of the state median income. But qualifying doesn’t mean getting because LIHEAP has never been adequately funded.

For Fiscal Year 2009, Congress appropriated a total of $5.1 million for LIHEAP–slightly more than $4.9 billion for basic grants and $590.3 million for the contingency fund. This was nearly double the funding for Fiscal Year 2008.

Yet the National Energy Assistance Directors Association reports that only 18.7% of eligible households received assistance. About 4.3 million households had their power shut off for non-payment.

For Fiscal Year 2010, President Obama proposed only $3.2 billion for LIHEAP, plus a trigger for additional funding if energy prices spiked again. Congress instead voted to fund the program at its Fiscal Year 2009 level. Surely a better choice because home heating costs are still much higher than in the recent past and, more importantly, because far more people need help.

NEADA projects a 20% increase in the number of households that will apply for assistance this fiscal year. Nothing like this number can be served with the level-funded block grants. States will need swift infusions from the contingency fund.

But they won’t be enough. NEADA estimates that the block grant appropriation could provide 7.8 million households with grants–nearly 1.8 million fewer than the projected number of applicants. If grants average $523, as NEADA expects, the contingency fund could cover only about 1.2 million.

A New York Times editorial recommends a supplemental appropriation when Congress returns. As it says, $2.5 million would cover the applicants who will otherwise be left in the cold.

That would be chump change in a budget that’s well over $3.5 trillion. But it could be a tough sell anyway. The White House and the Congress will be focused on job creation. And we’re hearing alarms about the deficit–from Democrats as well as Republicans.

I just wish our leaders could hear, as I do, the sirens screaming down the street to the low-income housing complex a couple of blocks away. Every winter, they’re a sad reminder of how we won’t put our bucks behind our best intentions.


Will Low-Income People Gain From Climate Change Legislation?

June 14, 2009

Last week, I wrote about how the Markey-Waxman climate change bill would cushion the cost impacts on low-income households. There’s a flip side: What might low-income people gain from a shift to a “green economy?”

First off, an effective climate change law would avert the impacts of unchecked global warming. We’re talking here about increasing risks of floods and droughts, loss of coastal and agricultural lands, more powerful hurricanes and a host of other harmful environmental changes.

As the Climate Equity Alliance says, these will hit low and moderate-income people first and worst. We need only look the immediate and long-term impacts of Hurricane Katrina to know this is true.

A transition to a green economy will also create new jobs. We’re hearing a lot about these–how they’re going to spur economic recovery, how they’ll offset the accelerating loss of traditional manufacturing jobs, etc.

My question is, Who’s going to get these jobs?

Everyone seems to agree that workers will need training to qualify. Community colleges have already launched new programs. And the White House blog proclaims that “for green jobs, training is the first step.” But the training it’s talking about is to expand opportunities for the middle class–people who already have relevant skills or, at the very least, a good basic education.

What about unskilled workers and people who lack the skills and/or experience to get any job at all?

The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced that it would fund $500 million in grants to prepare workers for jobs that will be created by investments in renewable energy infrastructure, home energy retrofits and activities related to the development and production of cleaner fuels and cleaner modes of transportation.

Some unspecified portion of the grants will potentially go to nonprofits, schools, businesses and labor organizations to provide “pathways out of poverty” for “low-income and under-skilled workers, unemployed adults and youth, high school dropouts or other underserved populations.”

This is a good thing, so far as it goes. But my sense is that we’ll need to do considerably more to make the greening of the economy an opportunity for people who’ve grown up poor to work their way into the middle class.

What do you think?


Clean Energy Bill Addresses Costs for Low-Income Households

June 7, 2009

As has been widely reported, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has taken the first step toward one of President Obama’s top priorities–saving the planet from “the ravages of climate change.”

On May 21, it passed a massive bill–commonly known, after its cosponsors, as Markey-Waxman–that aims to reduce our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions through a combination of carrots and sticks. The carrots here are incentives to reduce energy consumption and/or switch from uses of fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources. The sticks are the costs of not doing that.

Both are embedded in a cap-and-trade scheme. Basically, the federal government will issue permits to emit a fixed amount of greenhouse gases, based on total caps that will be reduced over time. Companies that produce less than their share can sell their excess permits. Companies that produce more will have to buy them.

As this scheme kicks in, our home energy costs will go up. This is our incentive to use less–by switching to fluorescent lights, buying more energy efficient appliances, etc.

Costs of gasoline and other consumer products will go up too because they’ll cost more to produce and more to distribute. Last year’s spike in oil prices has already given us a taste of this.

Much of the recent debate has centered on the cap-and-trade concept–and on which interests should be fostered and which protected. We haven’t heard much about how the legislation may affect low-income households. But that doesn’t mean that no one’s been paying attention.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been working on the issue for some time. As its reports and testimony say, higher energy prices will have the greatest impact on low-income households because they spend a larger portion of their budgets on basic necessities. They are also less able to afford investments that will reduce their energy costs.

According to CBPP, the poorest fifth of households would see their costs go up by an average of $750 a year if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 15%. Their average annual income is just over $13,000, and the 2020 reduction target set in the Energy and Commerce bill is 17% below the 2005 emissions level.

So, sometime in the next 10 years, these households could face additional costs equivalent to 5.7% of their total income. These costs would rise as the emissions cap was lowered.

The House Energy and Commerce bill addresses rising energy-related costs in two ways. First, it gives free emissions permits to local utility companies, with the understanding that they’ll pass the savings on to their customers. This provision provides relief for all consumers, regardless of income.

Second, the bill adopts a version of CBPP’s recommendations for assisting low-income households. Basically, it commits revenues from the sale of emission permits to refunds based on how much the purchasing power of low-income households is reduced by higher energy prices.

Families that pay income taxes would receive a tax credit along the lines of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Other low-income households would receive their refunds through one of several mechanisms. For example, those who receive food stamps and/or certain other benefits would get theirs via their electronic benefits transfer cards.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the bill doesn’t address the above average cost increases that some low-income families will face–for example, because their apartments are drafty or their appliances old and inefficient. CBPP recommends more generous refunds and additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

I wonder what the prospects for these recommendations will be. The bill that Energy and Commerce passed gives away 85% of the emissions permits the government will issue. This leaves far less in revenues than would have been the case if proponents had been able to gain support for auctioning off all the permits, as President Obama wanted.

Competition for the limited revenues will be fierce. And there may be further needs to placate legislators who don’t much like the cap-and-trade scheme or want more benefits for certain industries.

In any event, the legislation has a long way to go. Eight other House committees have a piece of the action. And then there’s the Senate. Four committees have jurisdiction there, and they’ll need to produce something that can secure 60 votes.

So if ever there was a stay tuned, this is it.


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