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Energy program needs a boost

Recent cold temperatures in many parts of the country remind us of just how critical it is to keep warm in our homes during the winter.  And while many of us take the convenience of having access to heat for granted, the reality is that this is not the case for everyone.  Millions of Americans struggle to pay their energy bills during the winter months when their bills go up.  Thankfully, we have the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to provide critical short-term aid to our most vulnerable neighbors.  LIHEAP Action Day, taking place in Washington on March 2, is a key opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of this issue, and communicate to Congress why we must increase LIHEAP funds to protect our nation’s underserved. 

Most Americans don’t think twice when they go to flip a switch or turn on the heat.  But consider that an alarming 46.7 million people – or 14.8 percent of the total American population – lived in poverty in 2014 according to the United States Census Bureau.  This is an overwhelming statistic that reinforces the need for heightened awareness of the energy needs for low-income energy consumers.

{mosads}Since its inception nearly 35 years ago, LIHEAP has assisted low-income families, those on fixed-incomes and seniors to ease energy burdens, especially in the cold winter and hot summer months.  Federal eligibility rules governing LIHEAP require that household income may not exceed 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or 60 percent of the state’s median income.  To put that more clearly, a family of three would qualify if they made less than $30,000 annually.  However, most LIHEAP recipients fall well under that requirement; the typical family receiving heating assistance in Fiscal Year 2014 made about $16,000.

However, LIHEAP is not an entitlement program.  Congress must appropriate money each year, and unfortunately, the number of families applying for LIHEAP far exceeds the available funding for the program.  This has stretched LIHEAP to its limit and, as a result, it is only able to serve about 20 percent of the eligible population. 

Policymakers should be making every effort to remedy this situation. The burden of high-energy bills has a trickle-down effect as families need to decide whether to budget for medical care and food or heating their home during a brutal cold snap.  Here’s a startling example of this: when heating bills of low-income families go up, studies show that they reduce their spending on food by the same amount and cases of undernourished children increase by one-third in the winter.  Moreover, many of the families that are in need of LIHEAP are minorities.  Based on a five-year study by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Caucasians living below the poverty line was at 11.6 percent, compared with 23.2 percent of Hispanics and 25.8 percent of African Americans. 

All of this underscores the fundamental importance that energy plays in our society. Today, many of us are lucky enough not to have to consider energy a luxury item. We take for granted our access to electricity and natural gas, and that the lights, heat, or air conditioning will come on when we flip a switch. For millions of Americans, this isn’t the case. 

Congress has a myriad of issues to sort through this year, but we cannot let low income families fall by the wayside.  Properly funding programs such as LIHEAP is essential for providing these families with the ability to meet basic needs like heating and cooling their homes.  I am hopeful that this LIHEAP Action Day can shine a much needed light on energy affordability in this country.  

Rich is the executive director of Mid America Assistance Coalition and President of the National Energy & Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC).

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