Writing and reporting by Jake Brown
As the inevitable intersection of energy insecurity and its corresponding negative impacts upon vulnerable households continue to collide in more and more consequential ways, a study bringing the fallout into focus was published in September, 2016 by an Assistant Professor at Columbia University and an Environmental Health Fellow at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Shining a spotlight on collateral damage that comes as a consequence of the impossible choices these families make struggling to pay their utility bills, the study’s findings noted that “often, these kinds of energy woes are accompanied by health problems — chronic stress, exacerbated asthma, anxiety and depression.” The results further revealed that “requests for utility support…routinely rank among the top concerns for patients who screen positive for unmet social needs in the health systems we serve.”
Speaking on the substance of her findings, the study’s primary author, Prof. Diana Hernandez of Columbia University, reported discovering that numerous “participants described feeling worried about fuel bills and the deteriorated conditions of their home environments. The experience of energy insecurity also triggered mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression… The constant threat of service interruptions due to non-payment fueled parental fear and stigma. Parents felt judged by persistent surveillance on the part of child protective services and feared losing parenting privileges to the state with the concern that being unable to ‘keep the lights on’ could be considered a marker of inadequate parenting. Some participants expressed feelings of shame and a disruption of family life when living through a utility service disconnection.”
Eye-and-ear-opening enough to catch the interest of the Boston press, WBUR 90.9 radio reported that, in spite of the negative realities exposed in the study, “the good news is that are fixes available. Housing interventions that promote warmth and energy efficiency are among the most effective options to improve health outcomes” alongside leading “programs such as the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program…(that) provide fuel assistance for families. And in Massachusetts (where about 200,000 families qualify for help under LIHEAP, according to a report by WBUR’s Martha Bebinger) the group Action for Boston Community Development can also help people get the energy assistance they need.”
Seeking to help as many households as they could heading into what was sure to be a frigid winter for the Garden State, New Jersey Natural Gas announced the launch of its yearly Energy Assistance Days where specialists from NJNG “and state-designated agencies will be available to work with members of the community to identify which programs best fit their needs and assist with the application process.” Kicking off in mid-September through mid-October, the Atlantic Highlands Herald reported that “if you are struggling to make ends meet, paying your energy bill doesn’t need to be a burden. Whether a family or an individual is on a limited income or faced with unanticipated financial hardship, there are energy assistance and home energy-improvement programs available (including)… LIHEAP and the state’s Universal Service Fund (USF) help income-eligible households meet home heating and medically necessary cooling costs. Moreover, households that exceed LIHEAP and USF income thresholds and experiencing temporary or unanticipated financial hardship may qualify for NJNG’s Gift of Warmth fund, in addition to the state-sponsored Payment Assistance Gas and Electric and Temporary Relief for Utility Expenses grants as well as the NJ SHARES program.”
Before the frost had even started to settle over the corn fields of Iowa, word was already out about the start of LIHEAP winter enrollment periods, with utilities like MidAmerican Energy Company doing their part to help spread the news as company V.P. Terry Ousley reminded customers that “during the bitter, cold days of winter, LIHEAP helps to keep the heat on for those in our community who need it most. The reality is, when temperatures drop, energy consumption rises and in turn, bills go up. This results in difficult decisions for some, such as choosing between staying warm and buying groceries. We encourage all customers who think they may have challenges paying their bills this winter to apply for LIHEAP or call us to learn about our different payment options.” With the Clinton Herald reporting that in 2015, roughly 90,000 households received with $445/household as the average benefit, CAAs around the state were expecting 2016 to be competitive.
Even out in the traditionally-sunny state of Hawaii, word of LIHEAP assistance becoming available was making its way around the Island as the Honolulu Community Action Program was working hard in September to make families aware of the Energy Credit available via LIHEAP providing “supplemental support to offset client energy costs. Applications are processed only in June and applicants must be at or below 150% of the federal poverty guideline and have an active utility account.”
In neighboring Alaska, the word wasn’t so good as state budget battles, Heating Assistance Program Coordinator Susan Marshall delivered the unwelcome news that heading into the winter of 2016,“LIHEAP participants will see a decrease in aid. LIHEAP participants that meet this year’s income guidelines of a gross monthly income of $1,855 or less for a household of one will only see 70 percent of what their grant usually looks like and will have to make plans to pay for the additional 30 percent out of pocket.” Worse still, where Alaskans needing to make up the gap in LIHEAP funding decreases could previously rely on a supplemental state-run program – the Alaska Affordable Heating Program (AKAHP) – Marshall reported that “as of right now, it looks like AKAPH funding will be suspended indefinitely… Despite similar goals, LIHEAP receives funding on the state and federal level while AKAHP is completely state funded…We had to look at cuts, but at least there’s federal funding for people that are most in need.”