Home » The U.S. safety net was built for cold winters. Hot summers threaten it.

The U.S. safety net was built for cold winters. Hot summers threaten it.

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For decades, the federal government has subsidized the poor with energy costs during the cold winter months. Now, sweltering summers are straining social safety nets.

Melissa Besong, 40.  Outside her Nashville office at NeedLink, after filling out an application to keep the electricity from going off.  (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)
Melissa Besong, 40. Outside her Nashville office at NeedLink, after filling out an application to keep the electricity from going off. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

NASHVILLE — Moments after NeedLink Nashville opened just after Labor Day weekend, Melissa Besong walked into the nonprofit’s office with an unpaid electricity bill. Four months after she lost her job as a home health care assistant, she didn’t want to miss the chance to continue showing her power.

“Hopefully,” she said, holding a shutoff warning.

More than 40 years ago, Congress established an important safety net, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, to help people financially weather the frigid winters and the cost of running heat. But hot summers are creating a huge new financial burden for Americans, who spend a lot of time on their electricity bills because of air conditioning.

The summer’s new economic toll shows governments’ struggle to respond to climate change in the hottest part of the year.

This year offers a vivid example.Thanks to pandemic-related funding, the Biden administration That’s more than double the $3.8 billion Federal Energy Assistance Program. A government official said it was his biggest one-year investment in the program since its inception in 1981.

But proponents say about 85% has already been spent on heating in the winter, and as global energy prices have skyrocketed, so have heating costs. Few were left with those who would endure.

at the time of administration instructed According to Mark Wolfe, executive director of National Energy Assistance, when the state used additional money in July to subsidize summer cooling costs and build regional cooling centers, Many states were already using stimulus funds to pay off the huge debts accumulated during the pandemic. board of directors. Some states were short on funds. Other states that have focused spending on heating costs, such as Colorado and Pennsylvania, have ended summer energy assistance programs.

“The dilemma is that we don’t have enough money to cover both heating and cooling,” says Wolfe. “This is a very serious problem.”

From the southeast to the mountain west, leaders of private aid groups and state-run energy aid programs said they were inundated with requests for help with electricity bills this summer. People who don’t have money show up at the office with phone calls and emails past due to double or triple their bills. These groups are usually seen.

Similar to soaring rent and food prices, the burden of rising electricity prices has largely fallen on low-income households who already spend most of their income on utilities. In response to the pandemic, the Census Bureau launched a survey of Americans to find out how they are coping with rising energy costs.

A Washington Post analysis of survey responses collected between July 27 and August 8 found that nearly 20 percent of households making less than $25,000 a year said their home temperature was unsafe for several months of the year. Or I found out that it is said that it is kept at a level that feels unhealthy. This was more common among Latinx and Black respondents regardless of income than among whites and Asians.

As temperatures rise due to climate change, air conditioning units are using more energy to keep homes comfortable, resulting in huge bills and outage warnings for those who fail to pay.

About 20 million Americans are behind on their utility bills, according to the National Association of Energy Assistance Directors, which represents state officials who administer energy assistance programs. They owe an average of $800, double what they had before the pandemic.

Diana Hernandez, associate professor of social medicine at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said, “Cooling costs are rising, not just because of energy prices, but because of the increased need for cooling as a result of climate change. There is no doubt that there is.”

This July was the second hottest month on record in Nashville. According to Sarah Moore, senior program director at Needlink in Nashville, he’s 25% above pre-pandemic standards in the number of aid applications he’s received in July and his August this year. The organization will begin accepting online applications on Monday morning and will close after the maximum of 75 applications it can process in a week.

“We had to cut it off within 45 minutes,” Moore said.

Several factors have led to a surge in demand this year, making it difficult to isolate the role of the increasingly severe summer heat. . Electricity bills rose 15.8% in August compared to the same period last year, the biggest increase since 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while the job market has recovered from pandemic losses, many people are still struggling to pay their bills. Debt piled up in the meantime.

Even before supply chain disruptions and Russia’s war in Ukraine pushed U.S. energy prices higher, the question of how to stay cool during the summer and how to pay for it had become a major problem for poor Americans. In the hottest regions, access to air conditioning is not only a source of comfort, but can be the difference between life and death for the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

For 78-year-old Annette Todd Moore, who has asthma and is on a ventilator, turning off the AC wasn’t an option.

“We need air conditioning in our homes,” she said as she sat in the waiting room at Needlink Nashville after her electricity bill doubled this summer. “When the heat index goes up, it’s life and death.”

Even after Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, the crickets were still chirping and temperatures in Tennessee were still mild. I asked about assistance before I grabbed a bottle of water.

Since losing his job this spring, Besong has spent his time at home cooling off and cooking for his children, ages 7 and 5. To make ends meet, she cleaned her two family homes.

Her finicky air conditioner, she surmised, had caused her electricity bills to skyrocket this summer. “It’s been pretty hot this summer,” she said, and she had a bill with an outstanding balance of $253. “It’s definitely hotter than last summer.”

New England lawmakers, whose voters have historically benefited most from federal fuel assistance programs, continue to seek more funding. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed The Senator (DR.I.) has led an effort to warn members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees that without assistance programs they “will not be able to meet the needs of low-income families this winter.” “

Wolff and other supporters have urged Congress to increase the program next year beyond the $4 billion the House and Senate have tentatively agreed to budget, said Olivia Wayne, a staff attorney at the National Center for Consumer Law. , said funding would need to “go north toward $8 billion” to meet year-round heating and cooling needs.

“We’re literally flipping couches and flipping coins,” said Joshua Hollins, executive director of the Louisiana Housing Corporation, which oversees the state’s energy assistance fund.

Louisiana is experiencing a brutal summer. A spokeswoman for Entergy, the state’s largest utility, said four states it served this summer experienced record heat waves, “leading to record levels of electricity use by customers. ‘ said.

More days with triple-digit temperatures are straining the energy aid Louisiana receives from the federal government. Even in a year that looks plentiful, with much more money than usual, Hollins said he’ll be two weeks away from running out of cash.

In addition to rising power prices and extreme heat, Louisiana residents are also paying the price for the latest climate disaster. Since Hurricane Ida made landfall last year, utility companies have passed on the cost of repairing power lines and equipment to customers, adding to already inflated electricity bills. And while people living in cities can seek refuge in air-conditioned movie theaters, malls and libraries, Hollins said such options do not exist in rural parts of the state.

“There are people paying $600 and $700 in utilities, and they’re low income,” says Hollins. “I’m thinking they might have to go somewhere just to cool off. When I get into some of those rural areas it’s not there. That keeps me up at night. That’s why I let you.”

In Missouri, benefits to at-risk residents doubled to $600 and then doubled to $1,200 after a surge in high-billed customers this summer.

While policymakers generally agree that a warm home is essential, some still see cooling as a luxury. Most states have policies to prevent power outages during the winter, but fewer than half have similar policies in the summer.

Many states now offer year-round assistance, but some only help with winter utility bills. This approach made sense decades ago, he said, Wolfe. house heating costs In the coldest parts of the country, it can be two to three times your annual electricity bill. But today, he said, heating and cooling costs are “balanced” in some areas, but government aid is not.

For some people, air conditioners are too expensive to buy at all.

Denver-based nonprofit Energy Outreach Colorado says many of the people it serves never had to own an air conditioner. “People who normally contact us because they have a problem with the furnace are now contacting us and saying, ‘Is there anything you can do to help us with some cooling?’

During the pandemic, New York City distributed 74,000 air conditioners to low-income seniors isolated in apartments. Hernández of Columbia University then surveyed recipients and found that some people were hesitant to use it on the hottest days because of the cost.

In Memphis, air conditioning accounts for about half of the average electricity bill in the summer, according to Memphis’ utility, Memphis Light, Gas and Water. The average monthly fee a consumer pays for air conditioning alone in his home has surged from $75 in the last two years to $125 in this summer.

“This year we’ve seen people living with their families who can’t live in their homes because they don’t have air conditioning,” said Mary Hamlett, vice president of family programs for the Metropolitan Interface Association. rice field. in Memphis. “Either the units are broken and we can’t afford to fix them, or we can’t afford to run them in a way that maintains adequate cooling.”

The day after Besong visited the emergency room, the lights went out in her East Nashville apartment. “I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” she said. “I was so scared.”

To her relief, it was just a minor blackout. She soon got a call: The nonprofit will pay off her balance, and Besong will take on more cleaning jobs at her house in the future to help pay her bills. is.

“I’m going to get any help I can right now,” she said as she air-fried chicken patties for dinner. was

“And then,” she added. pay in advance. “

Phillips reported from Washington. Emmanuel Martinez contributed to this report.

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