LIHEAP: Keeping the Lights on in Low Income Communities

May 13, 2020

By: Esther Heymans

If you asked anybody on the street to describe the past year in a nutshell, one of the first words to spring to mind would be “stressful.” Between buying hand sanitizer, wiping down your groceries before they come into the house, and trying to navigate work and school from home, there have been many worries on the mind of American families. The fear of having your power shut off should not be one of them. While disconnection moratoriums have been in affect across the country, what happens when electric bills start rolling in again?

Katrina Metzler, the Executive Director at the National Energy Utility & Affordability Coalition, (NEUAC) has been working hard to help the families who will be most affected by the end of these moratoriums. The National Energy Utility and Affordability Coalition is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded to heighten awareness of the energy needs of energy consumers with limited incomes through public private partnerships. One of the programs that Metzler is most passionate about is called LIHEAP.

“LIHEAP stands for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, it is a flexible block grant, and the mission is to assist limited income households particularly those with the lowest incomes that pay the highest proportion of their households for home energy, to meet their immediate energy needs,” Metzler explained in her conversation with “The Current.”

LIHEAP exists to help anyone with an energy burden, but three kinds of groups are especially targeted for LIHEAP funds. “The first are elders, the second is people with disabilities, and the last are families with children who are younger than six years old,” said Metzler. These groups are prioritized because they are especially susceptible to additional harm from energy shutoffs. They often incur more harm due to an increased intolerance of extreme weather conditions.

LIHEAP is not a traditional entitlement program. Funds must be appropriated by Congress annually. This has drawbacks and advantages. One of the largest drawbacks is that the funds given to LIHEAP don’t necessarily grow in proportion to the needs of the community. To gain additional funds, Congress must appropriate them for the next year. This limits the amount of community support that LIHEAP can provide. Metzler explained further, “we can’t serve any more folks than what we have appropriated funds for, which is why advocacy becomes important.”

The benefit to being a block grant is flexibility. “LIHEAP is designed to maximize the ability of states to determine their own energy affordability needs and design a program that will meet those needs,” Metzler said. Because of this flexibility, states can determine how best to use LIHEAP funds without having to get direct approval from the federal government. They can be in touch with the needs of their communities and use the funds in the ways that will best help them. States can also determine how individuals qualify for LIHEAP. This flexibility allows on the ground assistance to communities that need it the most.

These state decisions are essential to the continuation of the LIHEAP program. State policymakers are some of the best entities to report on the problems currently affecting their communities to the federal government. Without direct testimonies from those in state government, LIHEAP might not be able to get the funds it needs at the federal level, something LIHEAP needs in order to remain effective. “It’s imperative that utilities be addressed, because they’re an important part of that safety net that keeps people safe,” explained Metzler.

The pandemic has changed the dynamic of energy burden in the United States. With many limited income families taking pay cuts or dealing with furloughs, energy bills are something that they simply cannot afford. This has led to a large increase in the amount of people who need assistance in paying electric bills. “Right now, we have a 65% reported increase in inquiries about energy assistance at the local level and we’re seeing a more than 50% increase in applications already,” Metzler said.

As we emerge from this pandemic, advocacy for limited income families is essential. Many individuals simply don’t know there are programs available to help them with their energy bills. Metzler is committed to continuing advocacy at local levels. “We want LIHEAP to be there for them when the bills come due,” she explained. “In the months and years to come LIHEAP will continue to work with state, federal, and local government to assist the most vulnerable,” Metzler affirmed. “We are determined not to let people fall through the cracks.”

Listen to episode 4 of “The Current” to learn more!

Episode 4:This week, Brad speaks with Katrina Metzler, Executive Director at the National Energy Utility & Affordability Coalition, or NEUAC. Katrina discusses the importance of the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and how state policymakers can help families struggling financially due to COVID-19.