Writing and reporting by Jake Brown
Even as winter comes to an end, worry over LIHEAP funding continues around the nation, especially in Northeastern states like Pennsylvania, which defines the very geography of LIHEAP’s broad tapestry of demographics who count on energy assistance year round to help keep the lights on, the house warm in the winter, propane in the fuel tank on the farm, and even helps with long-term independence via the state’s progressive weatherization program. Speaking exclusively with LIHEAP.org, Brian Whorl, Division Director of the Federal Programs and Program Management at the Department of Human Services, paints a picture on the ground as one where, without question, “LIHEAP is a crucial and life-saving program.”
How broad a spectrum of energy-assistance services does LIHEAP actually provide to the household being helped, say in the brutal winter Pennsylvania just experienced?
It provides an initial LIHEAP Cash grant (minimum of $200 up to maximum of $1000) towards the household’s heating bill, which allows recipients to allocate money within their budget for other needs. Eligible households can also receive a LIHEAP Crisis grant up to $500 to restore or maintain heating in their homes if they are without heat or in danger of being without heat. LIHEAP Crisis also provides assistance in getting broken or malfunctioning heating systems repaired or replaced.
Pennsylvania has a long LIHEAP winter enrollment period, stretching half the year, even extending the state’s shut-off moratorium past its deadline into April, do you have any recent data on how many families your office in partnership with the CAAs were able to help through this past long, cold winter?
Pennsylvania operates the LIHEAP program as a seasonal heating program during the winter months, from November through March. During the 2015-2016 season, we received 590,812 applications for LIHEAP benefits. During the 2016-2017 season, we received 617,641 applications.
Pennsylvania presently doesn’t operate a summer cooling program, meaning all of last year’s over $200 million in LIHEAP funding was invested in the winter season. What kind of a percentage of qualified population did that funding help stay warm?
We serve approximately 23% of the 1.5 million eligible households in Pennsylvania. Approximately 71% of applications for a LIHEAP Cash grant are approved and approximately 86% of applications for a LIHEAP Crisis grant are approved. We do not operate a summer program at this time, so all funding is allocated for the winter program.
As much as inner-city populations like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh depend on LIHEAP to help keep the heat on, across the state’s countryside, the program provides equal shelter. What kinds of specific help does this crucial lifeline provide to Pennsylvania’s rural communities?
Rural communities are often dependent on deliverable fuels, such as fuel oil, propane or wood, for their heating needs. Deliverable fuels tend to be more costly and are associated with larger upfront costs, as well as the added burden of having minimum delivery amounts. LIHEAP is beneficial in helping households afford at least a minimum delivery. Without LIHEAP, some households may not have heat if they cannot afford fuel which is why the LIHEAP grant is so important.
Veterans have become the newest and arguably the fastest-growing demographic to join the LIHEAP graph in the past decade, have you seen any kind of spike in your state’s case?
We ask for veteran status on the LIHEAP application, but a response is not required in order to process the application. However, low income households that contain veterans face the same hardships when confronted with the added energy burden of heating their homes. Any cut to LIHEAP funding would affect the ability of the program to serve all of these households within the community.
Finally, looking ahead, what would the impact be on your office if LIHEAP funding was cut from the current levels or outright eliminated as proposed in the White House’s FY2018 budget as it affects your ability to service the maximum number of Granite State residents heading into next winter?
The LIHEAP program in Pennsylvania does not receive any funding outside of the Federal allocation it receives. If a cut in funding occurred, Pennsylvania would be unable to continue to serve its residents at the current rate. For the 2016-2017 LIHEAP season, we raised the minimum benefit amount and added supplemental payments to households with elderly members, disabled members, and with children age 5 and younger. A cut in LIHEAP funding would have a detrimental effect on Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable populations. Elimination of Federal funding would eliminate LIHEAP in Pennsylvania.