Imagine: It’s January, and your car — the car you share with your partner to get to and from work — has just broken down. It has not been a particularly cold winter, but the apartment you rent is not well insulated so it is generally miserable unless you turn the heater up high. Upon arriving home you discover that your heating bill has arrived and it’s three times what you can afford. You will now have to choose whether to pay to get your car fixed so you can get to work, or pay the heating bill or risk a shut off by the gas company.
Thousands of low income families in North Carolina and across the country have to make these types of decisions all the time. This is why the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) exists – it provides critical monetary support to families who need help paying their energy bills. It is also, not surprisingly, one of the programs the Trump administration’s budget blueprint proposes to eliminate.
LIHEAP is an important program for our most vulnerable communities – particularly the elderly and the disabled – who are most susceptible to extreme heat and cold. These folks and low-income families often live in lower quality housing and have disproportionately high energy burdens, meaning they are paying more than 30% of their incomes in energy bills. LIHEAP provides essential relief to families who are struggling to pay their bills, and commonly have to make difficult decisions about which essential service they will be able to pay for from month to month – e.g. prescription refills or the heating bill?
In North Carolina, LIHEAP served over 191,000 households in 2016. Out of these households, 33% included an elderly person, 35% included someone with a disability, and 22% included a child under five years old. A typical family of three receiving LIHEAP assistance has a combined income of less than $17,000 a year.
The Trump administration believes that LIHEAP is ineffective – but LIHEAP’s main success is in supporting families with short-term energy emergencies. A LIHEAP family with an elderly grandparent living in the home may be experiencing a particularly cold winter and running an inefficient heater more than usual, resulting in a higher energy bill. The grandparent may also need extra medical care because of the colder weather, generating another unexpected expense for the family and placing them teetering on the edge of utility disconnection or putting them further in debt. LIHEAP provides the short-term bill assistance needed to get a family through the winter with dignity. LIHEAP also provides families with energy-related low-cost home repairs or replacements, to give these families a leg up beyond just bill assistance.
LIHEAP is a critical part of the social safety net for low-income families, and should be expanded, not eliminated. Since 2011, Congress has cut LIHEAP funding significantly, reducing its purchasing power and its role in maintaining family stability. Currently, LIHEAP is only able to meet 17% of the actual need nationally, and 16% of the need in North Carolina according to the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition. It is essential for Congress to support our most vulnerable families first – and programs like LIHEAP do just that.
As with so many of the Trump safety net proposals, let’s hope members of Congress think twice before rubber stamping more cuts to this vital program. You can tweet to #saveLIHEAP to help share this message.