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LIHEAP in Rural America

Making A Difference for Millions But Still Falling Short of Ever-Growing Demand

By Jake Brown

 

The White House recently released a mission statement of sorts titled “An Economy Built to Last for Rural America” as a companion piece to President Obama’s FY2013 budget proposal. The President made the struggle of millions of American households outside of the urban centers item # 2 on his list of priorities, aiming to “support vibrant rural communities” through an adjustment of “LIHEAP for expected winter fuel costs: The President’s budget provides $3 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help struggling families make ends meet by offsetting some of their home heating and cooling costs. While the cost of natural gas — which is the heating fuel most LIHEAP households use — has not risen in recent years, the price of heating oil has been on the rise. The additional $450 million over the 2012 request reflects expected home heating costs for winter 2012-2013.”

 

A year later, the bell was sounded even more loudly in its urgency as a propane shortage crisis emerged nationwide, causing the White House to again rally to the aid of rural communities struggling around the nation with the release of tens of millions of dollars in emergency contingency funding. This move inspired Senator Tammy Baldwin in January, 2014 to “applaud the Obama Administration for taking this action in response to the crisis faced by … rural homeowners across Wisconsin … experiencing crisis conditions due to the propane supply shortage and resulting price hikes in the Midwest.”

 

Residents throughout Indiana found themselves battling not only frigid temperatures this past spring, but the added challenge of the aforementioned severe propane shortages this winter – and hence much higher fuel prices than usual. This plight affected rural households disproportionately, as evidenced by Community Services Manager Gina Gomez of the Northwestern Indiana Community Action reporting in February of this year that “we are seeing people who never applied before that are needing the assistance.” Covering this unsettling reality, the Northwestern Indiana News service painted a picture of the impact on “local township offices and community service agencies are seeing the effects of the propane shortage on rural residents, where the fuel is commonly used for home heating … When they go to order propane, they can find the price as much as 75 percent higher than a year ago. That means a 250 gallon tank fill-up that would have cost $442 last year can now cost more than $1,000.” Governor Mike Pence felt the crisis so dire that he “ordered an additional $5 million released for LIHEAP vouchers and increased its crisis benefits to $550 from the previous $400.”

 

In response to his own state’s winter propane shortage, Minnesota State Senator David J. Tomassoni led the effort locally to supplement the gap in funding to meet enhanced demand for aid among Minnesotans with $20 million in emergency state funding. Tomassoni pointed out in his press announcement surrounding the additional aid that “my first priority was making sure that Minnesotans are taken care of and can stay warm in their own homes. This propane crisis has disproportionally affected rural and Northern Minnesotans – however I want to caution that this bill is a short-term solution to a much bigger problem. Not even the law of supply and demand justifies a 500 percent increase in cost.”  Governor Mark Dayton added that “the amount of propane needed to heat Minnesota homes, farms, and businesses during this exceptionally cold winter and the skyrocketing cost of propane threatened to exhaust our state’s LIHEAP funding and put our citizens out in the cold … We are continuing to do everything possible to keep Minnesotans safe and warm during this emergency.”

 

Putting that emergency in the local language of rural resident Christine McVicker, who was profiled in a feature by Minnesota Public Radio where they reported “the problem of dwindling gas supplies is nothing new for the many rural Minnesotans who heat their homes with propane. The blasts of arctic weather the region’s been getting this winter have helped drive up prices for propane — which is already in short supply for a host of other reasons. If you live in a city or suburb, chances are the gas that fires your furnace or boiler comes to your home from a pipe under your street. If you live in a rural area – as Christine McVicker does – the gas, in her case propane, comes on a tanker truck. McVicker – who lives in an 1876 farmhouse near Isanti with her husband and three kids – has been seeing a lot more of that truck lately. She says it’s been by twice this month already, and each time she leaves a really big check for the delivery man.”

 

Emphasizing the true extreme of the strain the shortage has put on her family, and the difference LIHEAP and state emergency heating assistance have made in keeping her heat on, Christine McVicker applied a bit of levity to the dire situation, seeming to shake her head while sharing her opinion that “it’s kind of funny. You can see the steam from the boiler come up past these windows, and every time I see the steam coming, I always think it should just be green, because it’s basically money going into the air. We just put 200 gallons in because they’re limiting how much we can get, and that was about $530!”

 

The scene was much the same out in the western region of the United States, where in Idaho, the Rural Housing Repair and Rehabilitation – a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Development – was working hard to get the word out to the countryside communities on a special program providing “loans in rural areas to finance repairs on homes” with the aim of long-term reductions in utility bills based on weatherization applications that the RHRR explained meant rural residents can “use a Rural Housing Repair and Rehabilitation loan…for the following (weatherization-related) … needs: Connection fees for utility hookups; Insulation, storm windows and doors; Repair or replacement of heating systems.”

 

Seeking to stay ahead of the storm in preparing his home state, Senator Charles Schumer of New York – a longtime LIHEAP advocate – recently reminded his colleagues of the altered landscape of LIHEAP in the context of steadily decreasing funding in the face of the fact that “hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers each year, many of whom are seniors on a fixed income, rely on this funding to help pay for what’s becoming a larger and larger share of their budget. With federal funding on a steady decline in recent years, need has outpaced available home heating aid; hopefully this boost will help address that discrepancy. It means fewer have to choose between paying for heat and the rent, heat and prescription drugs, or heat and putting food on the table. And as these funds drive weatherization efforts and help families afford more efficient heating units, consumers everywhere will benefit from lower demand on the grid.”

 

Already focused on the coming winter season, in July, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association expressed its disappointment with Congress’ announcement of $3.39 billion in proposed FY2015 funding, with NRECA CEO Jo Ann Emerson hammering home the bigger-picture point that LIHEAP will continue to be crucially “important to rural communities, where extreme weather and economic crises hit hard, so it is unfortunate that lawmakers did not provide the $4.7 billion so desperately needed. LIHEAP helps many fixed-income households cope with home fuel costs during both cold and hot weather emergencies … Our message is critical, because the administration proposed an 18 percent cut for LIHEAP.”

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