States cut programs to help poor cool their homes
From a story by Tom Coyne on Minnesota Public Radio:
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – Many states hit hardest by this week’s searing heat wave have drastically cut or entirely eliminated programs that help poor people pay their electric bills, forcing thousands to go without air conditioning when they need it most.
Oklahoma ran out of money in just three days. Illinois cut its program to focus on offering heating money for the winter ahead. And Indiana isn’t taking any new applicants. When weighed against education and other budget needs, cooling assistance has been among the first items cut, and advocates for the poor say that could make this heat wave even more dangerous.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Timothy Bruer, executive of Energy Services Inc., which administers the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in 14 Wisconsin counties. The group has turned away about 80 percent of applicants seeking cooling assistance.
The sizzling summer heat comes after a bitterly cold, snowy winter in many places and at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high.
The cuts began after Congress eliminated millions of dollars in potential aid, forcing state lawmakers to scale back energy assistance programs. The agencies that distribute the money are worried that the situation could get even worse next year because the White House is considering cutting the program in half.
Joyce Agee, a retired secretary from South Beloit, Ill., said she typically receives about $300 in utility assistance each summer and up to $600 for the winter to supplement her Social Security income. After running her air conditioner constantly, she’s worried about her next electric bill.
“I’ve cut back on what I eat so that I can pay my light bills and everything else,” she said.
The government provided $4.7 billion for low-income energy assistance for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, down $400 million from the year before. The money is primarily used by states to help with heating bills in winter, which lasts longer and generates higher utility bills.
But dozens of states, particularly those in the South and Midwest, have traditionally used a portion of the money to provide help during the summer — especially for elderly people and those with medical conditions that could be fatal in high heat.
“Energy assistance helps vulnerable people. If they can’t turn their air conditioner on because they’re afraid to pay the bill, there’s documented cases of people dying over time. It’s totally preventable,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which is made up of state officials who give out the federal money.