Trump Coronavirus Response Could Hurt Low-Income Americans

The Trump administration has attempted to cut funding from key federal programs that support low-income families since he’s taken office and now the public health emergency of the coronavirus appears to be his most recent excuse to target the most vulnerable.

While there should absolutely be funding made available immediately to fully address the coronavirus emergency, it should not come from the modest funds that are available to our nation’s most in need. Safety net programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which funds emergency energy cost assistance to poor families, have been targeted for reduction or outright elimination to support the president’s budget priorities for initiatives that advance a political agenda rather than meet the needs of America’s people. This administration has a history of targeting federal programs that help low-income households, threatening to limit access to health care while increasing poverty and inequality.

Recently, a document the Trump administration reportedly sent to members of Congress suggests that the administration is considering transferring $37 million from LIHEAP to emergency funding to respond to the coronavirus threat. The LIHEAP funds are needed to ensure that low-income families have support for home heating cost. The program provides heating and cooling assistance to over 6 million low-income families each year, (about 20 percent of the eligible households), helping poor families cover the cost of high utility bills. These emergency funds play a crucial role in supporting the health and safety of households nationwide by keeping their utilities running and reducing their exposure to weather and pollutants that weaken health. 

Recent analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Agency Residential Energy Consumption Survey found that one in three American households was “energy insecure” and faced difficulty paying  utility bills or in maintaining adequate heating and cooling in their home. This is happening even as total U.S. expenditures on energy are at the lowest levels in a decade. 

Further, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that 1 in 5 households has to forego/reduce food and medicine spending to pay energy bills at least one month a year and that over 10 percent of households do not use heating and/or cooling equipment at least one month during the year due to cost concerns. Similarly, 14 percent of U.S. households reported receiving a disconnection notice for energy service, and once in arrears, utility service cost increase to either avoid disconnection or to restore services once they’ve been shut off.

In addition to energy assistance, the LIHEAP program also works in tandem with the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) to support weatherization services. These include installing insulation, duct sealing, heating and cooling systems repairs or replacement, air infiltration mitigation, and installing ENERGY STAR® lighting and appliances—all of which help decrease energy use in low-income households, which also reduces utility costs for poor families.

Families who qualify for LIHEAP can also have home energy audits done that assess whether a weatherization plan could help reduce their energy usage. Although the budget is allocated at the federal level, individual states administer the funding and provide direct services to households that need it. LIHEAP allows states to transfer up to 15 percent off their emergency funds to their state WAP. Some states will apply for LIHEAP’s Good Cause Waiver, which enables them to utilize up to 25 percent of their allocation toward weatherization. In total, the majority of a state’s weatherization budget may actually come from LIHEAP depending on the percentage of the LIHEAP budget used for weatherization services.

LIHEAP programs are a critical lifeline to many families. We can’t allow the president to cover up the fact that he and his administration are unprepared to address threats to public health and are trying to disguise that on the backs of America’s elderly and poorest families.

About the Authors

Khalil Shahyd

Managing Director, Environmental and Equity Strategies; Environment, Equity & Justice Center

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