By Helen Holton
An astounding 45.3 million people — 14.5 percent of the total American population— lived in poverty in 2013, according to the most recent information available from the U.S. Census Bureau. For families like these, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is critical, as it ensures they can heat and cool their home, one of the most basic necessities for survival.
Unfortunately, while the need for energy assistance for our most vulnerable populations is only increasing, funding for LIHEAP — which is approved by Congress each year — has been cut by more than one-third since 2011. This is unacceptable, especially considering that current LIHEAP funding levels are only sufficient to help about 20 percent of qualifying households. Now more than ever, it is crucial that Members of Congress, energy stakeholders and the broader public understand the consequences of this, and how important it is that funding levels are increased. Thankfully, education efforts like the recent LIHEAP Action Day help shine a spotlight on these issues, and I hope we can all work together to ensure that this vital safety net continues to be available to those who need it most.
With 44 percent of U.S. households with almost no savings for job loss, medical care or other emergencies, the families that rely on LIHEAP funds have little choice but to cut back on life essentials when their home energy costs rise. The consequences of this ripple effect are dire. For example, when the heating bills of poor families increase, studies show they often reduce their spending on food by about the same amount and cases undernourished children increase by about one-third during winter months. Similarly, seniors on fixed incomes often skip doses of live-saving medication when their budgets are strained.
The stark reality of the situation may be surprising, but a look at the numbers makes it crystal clear. Under federal law, LIHEAP recipients may not make more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level — less than $30,000 annually for a family of three — or 60 percent of the state median income. More than three quarters of the families receiving LIHEAP have at least one member who is elderly, disabled or a child. In these situations, the difference between having access to LIHEAP funds can mean life or death.
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 that the lights will come on when we flip a switch. For millions of Americans, this isn’t the case.
To say Congress has its fair share of policy issues and priorities that they have to sort out is an understatement, and there are certainly some issues that make sense to compromise on. Keeping low-income families safe in their homes, especially in the depths of summer and winter, is not one of them.
For these reasons, I hope days like LIHEAP Action Day can truly be meaningful ones, to ensure that an affordable, reliable supply of electricity is a reality for Americans who need it most.
The Honorable Helen Holton has served as a member of the Baltimore City Council since 1995 and serves as the executive director for the National Organization of Black County Officials.
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