Low-Income Energy Assistance Gets The Ax

February 14, 2011

Some of us recently get a brief taste of what it means to have your electricity shut off in the dead of winter. As the hours go by, it get cold … and colder. Also very dark.

So you bundle up, scrabble around to find a flashlight, light a fire in the fireplace if you’ve got one, maybe trek over to a friend’s house where the power is still on. Still, you know the discomfort is temporary.

But what if your electricity — or your gas, for that matter — is shut off because you’ve fallen behind in your payments? What if you’re told it will be, but you can’t come up with the cash? What if you’ve got one of those old-time furnaces and can’t afford any more heating oil?

Seems that you’ll have to … well, I don’t know what. Because both the House Appropriations Committee and the Obama administration have decided to demonstrate their deficit-reduction bona fides in part by cutting back on funding for LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program).

The Appropriations Committee’s spending cut list includes a cut in the LIHEAP Contingency Fund — $390.3 million less than what was approved for Fiscal Year 2010 and $590 million less than what the President requested for the current fiscal year.

The Contingency Fund is a pot of money that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services may release to states and other recipients, including the District of Columbia, when needs for home energy assistance rise due to a spike in prices, a natural disaster or some other “emergency,” including unusually cold weather.

Last year, HHS used the entire $590 million that had been budgeted. The Appropriation Committee’s cut would bring the appropriation down to $200 million. Virtually all of it has already been spent.

Meanwhile, the President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget cuts the regular LIHEAP block grant by about 50%. This, says an unnamed administration official, would bring total program funding, “in real terms” to what it was during the Clinton administration. Why the booming days of the mid-1990’s should be an appropriate measure is anybody’s guess.

I can’t help wondering why LIHEAP has been targeted for any cut at all. In terms of the total $3.73 trillion budget, the savings would be miniscule. The impact on low-income households wouldn’t be.

According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 8.3 million households benefited from LIHEAP last year, when the program was funded at $5.1 billion.

Yet only one in five eligible Americans received help from the program because the money wasn’t there for the rest — this according the National Conference of State Legislators and allies, including NEADA.

With funding at $4.1 billion — the level in the current continuing resolution — NEADA expects the average grant to cover only 42% of home heating costs and the number of households served to drop by about a million.

Another unnamed source, presumably in the administration, says that “energy prices are well below their levels … when Congress decided to increase LIHEAP funding to $5.1 billion.”

But average home heating costs are forecast to increase this year, especially in the chilly Northeast. And it’s fair to guess that the number of people in poverty is still at or near the record level the Census Bureau reported for 2009.

No reason I can see to think that energy prices will revert to pre-recession levels or that significantly fewer households will have to choose between heating and eating. No one expects the economy to start generating enough more jobs to put the majority of unemployed people back to work any time soon.

Even if it did, millions of households would still need help with their home energy bills — low-wage workers with families to support, seniors and younger severely disabled people who rely on Social Security, etc.

Matthew Cooper at the National Journal floats a couple of theories on why the President has zeroed in on a small popular program that keeps vulnerable people from freezing — or dying from extreme heat because they can’t pay to keep their air conditioners or fans running.

He’s trying to show that he’s really tough on the deficit, to reposition himself for the next election, to generate fear that will galvanize allies to fight against bigger spending cut threats.

I’ve no idea what’s motivating the President. All I can say is that we’ve got more than enough politicians telling us what tough choices they’re making when they slash spending that’s a life and death matter for the poorest Americans.

Tough on whom?


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.