Millions struggle to pay AC bills in heat waves
Federal aid reaches only a fraction
Associated Press | 8/10/2023, 6 p.m.
DENVER - Bobbie Boyd is in a losing battle against near triple-digit temperatures in Northwest Arkansas.
Her window air conditioner runs nonstop and the ballooning electric bill carves about $240 out of her $882-a-month fixed income. So the 57-year-old cuts other necessities.
Ms. Boyd eats one meal a day so her 15-year-old grandson, who she’s raising alone, can have two. She stopped paying car insurance and skips medical appointments.
“The rent and the light bill. And I’m broke,” said Ms. Boyd, who needs the cooling to stave off her heat-induced asthma attacks.
Compared to food stamps, which reach over 80% of the eligible population nationwide, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, falls far short even as climate change helped make July Earth’s hottest month on record and air conditioning becomes a means of survival.
That’s because most states run out of their federal funding every year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program.
“We’re likely to see the energy insecure population grow unless we have some pretty significant and substantial government intervention,” said Michelle Graff, who studies the federal subsidy at Cleveland State University.
As it stands, many states don’t even offer the assistance for summer months, and those that do often run out of funds before the hottest days roll around. The program was founded decades ago with a focus on winter heating bills and has been slow to adapt to climate change’s hotter summers.
President Biden has promoted LIHEAP as “crucial for low- income families to help with their energy bills,” saying last week that during the sweltering summer, “even when the heat is over, many of our families may see their largest-ever energy bill.”
On a visit Tuesday, President Biden told a crowd north of Phoenix — where residents endured 31 straight days above 110 degrees in which at least 18 people died indoors without air conditioning — that “extreme heat is America’s No. 1 weather-related killer.”
Still, in Arizona, the nation’s hottest state where roughly 650,000 low-income households qualify for the federal energy help for cooling assistance, only about 11,600 actually received it, according to the federal data.
Samira Burns, a Health and Human Services official, said in a statement that the Biden administration doubled the LIHEAP budget through the American Rescue Plan and that HHS has updated guidance to help states target support during extreme heat. “The Biden-Harris administration has prioritized ensuring that eligible households seek and receive the utility assistance they need,” she said. “We know we must continue to do all that we can.”
Just outside Phoenix five years ago, the death of 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman on a sweltering day after her electricity was cut off because of a $51 unpaid bill brought attention to the danger heat poses to people who are energy insecure.
While Arizona power companies are now banned from cutting off customers during the hottest months, last year nearly 3 million people had their power disconnected for failing to pay bills — a third within the three hottest summer months, according to data collected by the Energy Justice Lab.
“In the more extreme, but not at all rare circumstance, the risk is death,” said Sanya Carley, who studies energy policy at the University of Pennsylvania and is co-director of the Energy Justice Lab.
When Candace Griffin of Houston received disconnection notices this summer, she scrambled to keep the electricity flowing by seeking nonprofit assistance to pay monthly bills that surpassed $400. There wasn’t anywhere else to pull extra money from.
“I have to pay the energy bill, I have to have lights, I have to have AC,” the 51-year-old said. And, “I have to eat.”
The poorest Americans and minority communities already live in hotter neighborhoods and many suffer without air conditioning at all. While there are tax credits and rebates to help install air conditioning, most remain out of reach for impoverished households.
But even with air conditioning, those with the lowest incomes face higher costs than their wealthier counterparts — in part because they are more likely to live in older, less insulated and drafty homes.
Energy insecure households paid 20 cents more per square-foot for energy usage than the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The federal Weatherization Assistance Program helps shore up low-income homes to make them better insulated, less leaky and reduce reliance on air conditioning and heating altogether. Still, while almost 40 million low-income households are eligible, only about 35,000 households get the help each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The program is critical because it reduces energy bills, which tip roughly a quarter of low-income households into debt, accord- ing to Ms. Carley of the Energy Justice Lab. And, if electricity is disconnected, costs just add up. The fridge warms and the food goes bad; utility companies charge hefty reconnection fees.
“It becomes very, very difficult for them to dig out and to be able to ... pay their next energy bill,” said Ms. Carley, who added that about half of households who are disconnected have been disconnected before.