Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
There is a rule in the land of 10,000 lakes that kicks in with Minnesota's legendary cold weather. This rule, the Cold Weather Rule, is an extra layer of insulation for families struggling with the spike in winter heating bills. It is designed to protect households heating with gas or electricity from utility service disconnections from October 15 to April 15 each year. Public utilities, cooperative electric associations, and municipal utilities are prohibited from disconnecting heating customers who apply for protection with their utility, agree to a payment plan, and make regular payments. The Cold Weather Rule applies to customers of any income level if the customer completes the payment agreement and makes timely payments. Unfortunately, the Cold Weather Rule does not cover households using propane, fuel oil, or wood for heating sources.
Fortunately, LIHEAP (which supports Minnesota’s Energy Assistance Program, or EAP) is available to help low-income Minnesotans stay safe and healthy. Underscoring just how vital LIHEAP funds are to families around the state, LIHEAP State Office Director John Harvanko tells LIHEAP.org that in addition to the thousands of households served in the Minneapolis/St Paul metropolitan area," the impact of the Energy Assistance Program is most profound in rural/greater Minnesota.” Harvanko explains that due partly to higher fuel costs in rural Minnesota, two-thirds of EAP funds serve Minnesota households outside of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. For example, in Federal Fiscal Year 2016 (FFY2016) $61.5 million was distributed in rural/greater Minnesota, compared to $28.3 million in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.
Minnesota spends approximately $2 billion to heat homes annually, according to the Minnesota House of Representatives. Harvanko notes that for all his office's hard work, Minnesota’s EAP typically serves a little over 25% of the estimated income-eligible population. "Minnesota’s program focuses on heating, so most of our budget is spent on the winter season,” he said. “With an average household size of about 2.6 and an average income of about $17,500 (in FFY2016), Minnesota’s EAP households have very limited funds to address all of their household needs. The issue of low-income households having to choose to ‘heat or eat’ affects households statewide, not just in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area."
The distressed economics of the average LIHEAP-assisted household can cause both short- and long-term harm to the affected families. Harvanko's office points to the report Heat and Eat: Using Federal Nutrition Programs to Soften Low-Income Households’ Food/Fuel Dilemma, which describes the heat-or-eat dilemma. The report states: "... some costs are unavoidable. Rent has to be paid or the family will be evicted. Child care and car bills have to be paid or jobs will be lost. Two costs that can be squeezed more are food and heat. But the consequences of doing so can be horrendous as heating costs compete directly with food for families’ scarce and fixed dollars in winter. Poor families tend to spend a larger share of income on shelter cost and less on food to compensate, and eat less as a result, while better-off families, even while paying rising fuel bills, spend more on food when it gets colder."
Also noted are findings by Dr. Michael Georgieff, director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, that poor nutrition, stress and poverty prevent the body from properly absorbing nutrients, leading to less than optimal brain development in children. According to Georgieff, it is “clear that children who don't receive proper nutrition are at risk because a child's brain needs plenty of micronutrients," which primarily come from food sources. According to analysis from the Children's Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Project, "after adjustment for differences in background risk, living in a household receiving LIHEAP is associated with less anthropometric evidence of under-nutrition, no evidence of increased overweight, and lower odds of acute hospitalization from an emergency department visit among young children in low-income renter households compared with children in comparable households not receiving LIHEAP."
Harvanko explains that Minnesota’s LIHEAP households have significant numbers of household members who are more vulnerable in low- or no-heat conditions, including small children, seniors, and people with disabilities. In FFY2016, Minnesota’s LIHEAP served about 47,000 households with seniors (age 60 and over); more than 29,000 households with children under age 6; and about 53,000 households with a disabled household member. In addition, Minnesota served nearly 8,000 households with veterans. Harvanko states that “the program protects vulnerable Minnesotans from losing heat during the coldest months of the year. In FFY2016, Minnesota received $114 million in federal funds from LIHEAP and served approximately 339,900 Minnesotans living in 133,000 households. Of these households, 22% had at least one child under age 6, 35% had at least one senior member, and 40% had at least one disabled member.
On April 7, 2017,The Huffington Post profiled a Minnesotan who receives LIHEAP assistance. Keith Wilson, a former woodworker who lives with a disability in Wendell, Minn. Wilson, like many other recipients, applies for help from the program only when he needs it."If we didn’t need it, I would let other people use it," Wilson said.
As of November 2017, nearly 89,000 Minnesota households applied for LIHEAP assistance, a 1.3% increase over the number of applications received by the same time last year. Minnesota’s LIHEAP office is currently projecting 143,000 households will apply for assistance by May 31, 2018, and an estimated 330,000 Minnesotans will be helped with energy assistance this program year.
With fears of funding levels dipping as a budget battle continues in Washington, back in America's heartland, LIHEAP offices are working hard to stretch every funding dollar to ensure they can help the people most vulnerable in low- or no-heat situations. As Harvanko stressed, “Cutting or eliminating funding for LIHEAP would have a devastating effect on hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable Minnesotans."