Writing and reporting by Jake Brown
“We’re expecting a really hot summer,” quips Cynthia Zwick, Director of the Arizona Community Action Association (ACAA), one of the leading providers of LIHEAP and other utility assistance programs throughout the State. Offering LIHEAP.org an exclusive interview to discuss Arizona’s upcoming scorching summer season, where in spite of the fact that its considered among the hottest in the nation, Zwick reveals that “our Community Action Agencies are only serving about 6% of the folks that come through their doors….We have a huge gap in the number of people who need assistance and those who are receiving it, huge.”
Measuring in greater depth the deficit between demand and the number of households who aren’t being helped, Director Zwick has found that “inArizona, with the numbers that we’ve tracked for LIHEAP alone, we are the least-funded state per-capita in the country, and one of the hottest. So we have huge issues with how the money gets distributed and sort of the inattention to the formula, and we think that we should be getting more of a fair share of those funds.”
Speaking on the general increase of applicants from across all demographics her organization and others are expecting to apply for utility assistance this summer, Cynthia confirms that “anecdotally, what I’m hearing historically is that there’s been an uptick, and that the demand continues to rise, and I don’t think this year’s going to be any different. So I think its fair to say we’re expecting more folks seeking assistance than have in the past, and that I think relates to a couple of things: one is that we’re fully expecting, based on a state budget that was recently passed, that we’re going to see more families struggling this year generally, and that always leads to more applications for utility assistance. So we have every expectation that more folks are going to be seeking that assistance.”
To help reach the maximum number of households applying for assistance, the ACAA has partnered with an impressive network of players around the gateway to the Grand Canyon, including a strong and longstanding alliance with the state’s largest utilities, fellow Community Action Agencies, charities, customer donors, and others who compose a number of important partnerships—a number that has reached a total of about 64 partners who help educate individuals about the availability of programs.
“You see huge support for this program in the community,” Cynthia said, noting that one of the biggest sources of support in fact comes from individual donors through the Energy Share Program, which is the state’s utility bill “check-off donation.”
“We have just begun administering that fund for Southwest Gas, and they get around $300,000 a year from their customers, which is phenomenal,” Cynthia said. “It’s significant, and it really does make a difference in this community. It articulates support and awareness that there are issues and concerns, and then it also has the intended effect of helping people with their bills.”
Arizona’s Governor and State Legislature have not imposed moratoriums preventing utility providers from shutting off power during severe weather—a surprising approach, but one that the ACAA prefers: “The two major electric companies here in Arizona, Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service, have internal policies that drive moratoriums. So what happens is, once it gets over about 100 degrees in the summer – when the weather service is predicting an extreme heat day – an internal moratorium essentially goes into effect whereby the utilities will not cut off if an extreme heat warning is in effect.”
According to Cynthia, the two major utilities, whose community outreach representatives sit on the ACAA board, also work with customers to mitigate inability to pay by setting up payment plans and doing as much as they can to ensure customers are not losing service.
“The other thing that’s happened as a result of developing those relationships is that when rate proposals are being considered, we’re brought into the discussion very early,” Cynthia said. “It has led to a real understanding of the issues that their customers face, and a real sensitivity to what the impact of those rate increases will have.”
Weatherization is also important in Arizona, where it’s considered invaluable tool in the battle to help households lower their utility bills in the long term.
“It’s hugely important here,” said Cynthia. “Not unlike other communities, a lot of the housing here in Arizona is really poor for low-income families, not insulated and really leaky. We have seen huge savings from weatherization, which creates all sorts of opportunities for the family that doesn’t have to pay a $600 electricity bill any longer.”
In spite of these proven sales for households, making a convincing case for a greater investment in weatherization funding from Washington has proven to be a complicated issue.
“The Federal Department of Energy funds are essential, but they’re minimal at this point,” said Cynthia. “We’re using largely LIHEAP money leveraged with utility money to sustain the program here now.”
Given the impact weatherization has on households in the Arizona community, the state continues to borrow funds from LIHEAP to fund weatherization efforts.
“The state of Arizona takes 10 to 15% of the overall LIHEAP allocation and uses it for weatherization here. That money goes directly to the weatherization agencies, where the funds are combined with utility money that they make available and the unclaimed utility deposits that we administer. Those funds continue to help in homes.”
One group who the ACAA and its partners do NOT count on for support in their fight to increase utility assistance funding is the State political apparatus, neither inside the Legislature nor inside the Governor’s Office, where Dir. Zwick candidly offers that “I won’t mince words, we think there’s ZERO support for this program here. So there’s no State money that goes to either bill assistance or weatherization, so weatherization at the Legislative level is just not even in the realm of awareness, so there’s minimal – if any – support for the program at the state level.”
On a national level, Arizona’s LIHEAP representatives have joined a national coalition to push for a bigger piece of the pie within their region of hot-weather states.
“We’re working 12 months a year trying to serve as many families as we can, and it just seems unfair that we’re not getting really the proportion of the funding that was intended through the evolution of the funding formula. With all the Appropriation language tweaks about how the money actually gets distributed, and we often wind up on the short end.”
The ACAA is proudly part of this national coalition as the only non-profit member. The group is a multi-state collaboration. Cynthia notes that warm-weather states are “stepping up and helping advocate at the Federal level.”
“I think we’re raising a lot of awareness that there should be some consideration taken into effect when states like Arizona are serving 6% of the eligible households,” Cynthia continued. “I know that there are states in the East Coast that have much larger benefit payments and operate for very short periods of time. Arizona, in comparison, operates a 12-month program.”
Illustrating the reality that poverty is truly indiscriminate of labeling, the newest faces among the LIHEAP lines have grown in the past few years to include “former teachers who have advanced degrees who are coming through our doors because they are unable to get a job paying what they were making before, or even a job at all in some instances.”
This change, likely a byproduct of the great Recession of 2008-2009, is stark, especially when held against the backdrop of a program that primarily aims to help the Veterans, single-parent households with children under the age of 5, individuals with disabilities and the elderly living on a below-poverty fixed income.
Assisting people in hot summer states like Arizona is a literal difference between life and death.
“In the summer months, when we don’t have enough money, we have seen deaths occur.” Cynthia reflects. “I know you’ve heard the statistic that more low-income families die of heat-related deaths than cold-related deaths, and that’s not something we like to talk about because its painful, but it’s the reality. So I think, to the extent that this program is available, that is much less likely to happen, and I would argue definitely has saved lives over time.”