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

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.

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

  1. […] Funds For Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Fall Short Of Need … […]

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  3. Marcia says:

    We have a serious issue in Minnesota that has been swept under the carpet. The assistance program (in a specific multi-county area) for home heating, insulation, furnace/window repair, etc. for the poor was a victim of theft. Some people have been on the list for several years & have not received help. They (Feds/State) continue to investigate (year 2+) and have found the person who ran the program showed new hot water heaters, furnaces had been installed & repairs made that never happened. My [close relative & part of the investigation]has been asked/told not to say anything. She is poor, has a very cold, drafty old house in North central-west Minnesota. I have asked her to blow the whistle, but she will not. Should an investigation last over two years? and should the involved poor be eliminated from help because they are part of the investigation? (The, since fired, person running the program showed these people had received new appliances/help when they did not, so until the investigation is over, they are not allowed to receive needed insulation, window replacements, or furnace repair.) Had to get that off my chest and tell someone.

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    This is a shocking story, Marcia. Unfortunately, it’s not the only LIHEAP fraud case that’s been discovered. I see that the federal government has indicted someone who was coordinating the program for an Indian tribe in North Dakota. These episodes are, needless to say, not helpful to the cause.

    I imagine your relative is afraid that if she speaks out, when she’s been told not to, that she’ll never get the energy assistance she needs. I guess that leaves it to you and others who care about her to act on her behalf. Have you thought about perhaps a letter to the editor of your local newspaper? Or better, trying to make contact with a reporter who covers local news?

  5. Debbie OHara says:

    Hi, I live in Honeoye, NY & am on ss disability. I just received a “reject” letter from what I thought was New york state & I just read I need to be 60% below poverty level. I am but they said it was 80% so I could get no help. I live alone in a 600 square foot home that’s in need of a new roof & windows. Can you give me any insight to what direction I should take? I don’t want to get scammed by any private companies. Any help would be appreciated! : )

  6. Kathryn Baer says:

    Debbie, you’re asking a question that is way out of my scope of expertise. From what you say, I gather that the Weatherization Assistance Program has made a mistake in figuring your income. So my first thought would be to write them and give them the correct information, i.e., what your income is and that it is below the applicable income cut off. Here are the income cutoffs for each family size:

    If that doesn’t work, you might want to seek the help of an attorney. There may not be a free legal clinic in your community, but there are some in Rochester. The legal clinics I know all help low-income people with benefits issues. Here’s a list of those in Rochester:

    Hope this helps and that everything turns out okay.

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