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.