LIHEAP Rallying Cries From Around the Nation
Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
Phone lines and news wires lit up around the country like a wildfire throughout July and August as fears over LIHEAP elimination spread. Many states were forced to make early reductions in the numbers of projected households they would be able to help this winter due to the uncertainty over the FY2018 budget. Enough of an alarm was raised to inspire a majority of Attorney Generals from around the country to co-sign a letter forewarning Congress of the damage the sense of uncertainty over funding was having on both state LIHEAP offices and millions of families around the country.
Reflective of LIHEAP's broad geographic relevance, the attorney generals were joined by consumer advocate directors in defending LIHEAP. Their chorus was an impassioned defense of the results-oriented nature of a program that has been a consistent performer in providing "a critical lifeline to customers who struggle each month to pay for life's necessities by assisting them to remain connected to essential utility services. We strongly urge you to oppose any measure that would reduce or eliminate funding for these critical programs, and instead increase these essential and cost-effective services."
Speaking on behalf of her colleagues around the country, Connecticut's Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz emphasized that the "annual distributions of LIHEAP funds specifically prioritize seniors and families with small children. Seventy percent of recipient households have at least one member who is elderly or disabled, or have a child under the age of six. The Advocates argue that without this vital assistance, many of these families would be faced with the impossible choice of opting between heating and cooling their homes, and paying for other necessities, such as food and medications."
A new wave of brave LIHEAP recipients took their voices public. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered a public hearing in Downtown Pittsburgh convened by the state Department of Human Services. At this hearing, Lisa Gonzalez, a 50-year-old resident with a disabling medical condition, spoke out forcefully: "I use LIHEAP. I use it in crisis. If it wasn’t for LIHEAP, most of the time, I wouldn’t have (any) gas." Testifying on his customers' behalf was Aaron Miller, a heating and cooling technician who weatherizes furnaces, who attested that "the folks I see through this program are elderly, disabled, single parents and families who are trying really hard just to get by already." Karen Wheeler, a Philadelphia resident, explained the helpless position she was put in when she reached out for LIHEAP's helping hand: “The reality was my electricity was shut off at the time, but I was embarrassed and I didn’t want anyone to know that...Making the country better doesn’t mean cutting off programs like LIHEAP and putting the weight of the world on the backs of the poor."
The public protests were ignited after the state announced a pre-emptive and dramatic 25% cut to program funding as a consequence of the threat of Federal cuts to LIHEAP funding by the White House. NPR elaborated on the repercussions and the impact the threat of lost funds made on Pennsylvania officials.
In Maine, an elderly recipient of LIHEAP assistance, 86-year-old Richard Perkins, courageously opened up candidly about his fear about the havoc that losing the critical lifeline would cause to his health and well-being, bluntly telling the Associated Press that "it's beyond my thinking that anyone could be that cruel." The AP highlighted the fact that "Perkins is a typical recipient. His income was fine 10 or 12 years ago when he retired, but gasoline, food and other expenses grew faster than he anticipated. In the winter, he keeps an eye on his oil storage tank, and the local community action agency sends 100 gallons when it gets low. It's difficult for him to keep warm because he's on a blood thinner, and he shudders at the thought of being cold."
In neighboring New Hampshire, US News published an editorial focused on the same risk the readers of the Nashua Telegraph were facing, making the sobering point that "any further cut, or the complete elimination of LIHEAP, would be a tremendous hit to those in our region who need the most assistance." Cuts in New Hampshire potentially affect more than 30,000 applicants for $28 million in heating aid.
In the Lake of the Ozarks region of Southern Missouri, another concerned citizen courageously put their LIHEAP story out on the front lines to help raise awareness of the lengths traveled to make the energy stretch even with LIHEAP's assistance, telling the Springfield News Leader that "in the summertime I try very hard to only use a small fan to keep my utility bills small. In the winter it's harder because of having to keep my pipes from freezing. So I keep my thermostat set at 50 degrees and cover up with a sleeping bag. Sometimes if it's really cold, I let the neighbor's cat in and he helps keep me warm. Yes, I really need your help and appreciate it!" The August profile also shined light on "the walls of an office suite in OACAC's office in northeast Springfield are covered nearly from floor to ceiling with thank you cards received over the years."
Spotlighting other residents who were willing to identify themselves publicly as energy assistance beneficiaries, the Springfield News Leader profiled Tom Lawson, a 71-year-old retired Springfield resident surviving like so many on a fixed monthly income of $1,049 that he splits between paying for his house, car, insurances, taxes, food and medical bills.
In the South, in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's home state of Kentucky, alarm bells were already warning LIHEAP-dependant families that "tens of thousands of Kentucky families who rely on help to heat their homes in the winter could be left out in the cold." Local Louisville television station WDRB reported the number of potentially affected families at approximately 150,000 households. Meanwhile, in Illinois, the Citizen's Utility Board celebrated as funding for two of the state's most popular energy assistance programs, Illinois Solar For All and LIHEAP were saved from the chopping block, revealing in July that "funding for those programs was in danger of being “swept”—or used for different purposes in the state budget. But thousands of people stood up to save them, and that’s good news for utility bills in Illinois."
In the boiling Southwest, creative states like Arizona teamed the resources of County and City energy assistance programs to expand and maximize outreach to help more households, reasoning they can do so together more effectively than individually. Tuscon LIHEAP Program Manager Manita Cervantes explained that " Pima County is actually going to be serving city and county residents. There will no longer be a separation." In neighboring New Mexico, the Albuquerque-based ABC-affiliate KOAT Channel 7 reported that families struggling with past-due summer cooling bills could find a helping hand courtesy of the Good Neighbor Fund Program, stepping in to help vulnerable households get caught up ahead of the winter season starting next month.
Out in California, Home Energy - which bills itself as The Home Performance Magazine - published an op-ed on the dramatic hit cuts would have across the state, not just for the families the programs helps, but also to non-profits, community action and charity organizations that make up the quilt of LIHEAP shelter. Arguing it would essentially bust the seams, Home Energy reasoned that "if the LIHEAP program were to go away it would cause a downward trajectory that would undermine all the work that has been accomplished. It would convey a message that the help and education it has provided doesn’t matter. Putting an end to LIHEAP would eliminate thousands of jobs and continued training and education that are necessary to continue to help those in need and achieve the goals of the Energy Efficiency Standards. To continue to make impactful changes in the lives of LIHEAP recipients, we must treat the threat of de-funding LIHEAP with the urgency and persistence it deserves. We need a long term commitment to be effectual - your voice counts!"