Unless Congress acts, Americans will be 'sweltering in place'

Unless Congress acts, Americans will be 'sweltering in place'
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Over the next few weeks, as Congress gets serious about an additional round of pandemic relief, they must dedicate the funds to ensure low-income Americans impacted by COVID-19 do not get cut off from their utilities. Without power, phones, gas, water and other essentials to daily life, we risk deepening the despair for too many of our neighbors.

Across the nation, Americans have been told to keep their distance to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. But millions of out-of-work Americans are struggling to pay their electric bills and now risk losing their air conditioning during the warmest stretch of summer.

As infection rates soar — particularly in the South and Southwest where seasonal temperatures regularly hit triple-digits — we are forcing a terrible a choice for too many people. During a heatwave, should folks stay home sweltering in the heat? Or should they find a public place with air conditioning to cool off and risk exposure to the coronavirus?

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Because of the pandemic, thankfully, electricity and gas shutoff moratoriums were put in place in the spring and kept families connected even if they couldn’t pay their bills. But those moratoriums are expiring.

In fact, of the 32 states that issued mandatory shutoff moratoria, four have already expired in Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi and Montana. Moratoriums are set to expire in 12 more states before the end of July. But many of the workers whose jobs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are still out of work, with no income for the past three months. And now, they have to come up with money to pay for not only their most recent electricity bill, but all of their electric bills since the moratoriums were put in place.

The situation is even worse for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. They are at highest risk of life-threatening COVID-19 infections and are also most vulnerable to heat stroke and other heat-related health problems.

Because having access to air conditioning is essential for so many Americans, Congress must step up to the plate. But, unfortunately, Congress is dramatically underfunding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Known as LIHEAP, it is a decades-old program that helps people who cannot afford to pay their gas and electric bills. LIHEAP remains an important component of America’s social safety net that could be utilized to help people cope with the pandemic.

In fact, all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., manage LIHEAP programs to help families who struggle to pay their home energy bills. However, today, the program is only funded enough to cover part of the energy bill for one in six eligible households, or about 6 million low-income families. And this year, 8.5 million additional families need help, having lost their middle-income jobs as a result of COVID-19 — bringing the total number of eligible up to almost 44 million households. 

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What's the solution?

Congress provided an additional $900 million for energy assistance as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March. That funding barely scratches the surface of what this country will need. In response, our organization, which represents the priorities of the executives who run LIHEAP across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., asked for an additional $4.3 billion to address the full scope of the crisis. The funds would be used to help an additional 11.2 million households and provide the funds necessary to purchase and operate one million air conditioning units for low-income elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Low-income families across the country are struggling to pay for food, shelter and energy. By providing desperately needed funding for LIHEAP, Congress could ease their health concerns by keeping them cool this summer. With so many deeply complex problems facing our nation, LIHEAP presents an easy fix to a critical problem, and we encourage the Congress to allocate $4.3 billion to LIHEAP in the pandemic relief legislation. 

Mark Wolfe is an energy economist who serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, representing state directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Cassandra Lovejoy serves as policy director.