TOPICS > Nation > poverty

Heat or hunger? Low-income families struggle to cope with winter weather

February 21, 2015 at 3:19 PM EDT
As the brutal winter drags on for parts of the country, many low-income families are struggling to pay their energy bills. In North Carolina, local governments are increasingly partnering with private nonprofit organizations to try to find new ways to help poor families stay warm in the winter. NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports.


STEPHEN FEE: Asheville, North Carolina — a city of 87 thousand, nestled in the Appalachian mountains. It’s perhaps best known for farm-to-table dining…funky boutiques…art house cinemas.

But behind palatial vacation homes and craft beer halls, 20 percent of people here live below the poverty line, outpacing state and national figures.

And during the wintertime — when the average January low is 27 degrees — low-income families some living in older or mobile homes often struggle to keep warm.

Nine years ago, after Betty and Mike Lanning’s daughter fell on hard times, they took custody of their infant granddaughter. Mike was a mechanic, Betty worked in home healthcare.

BETTY LANNING: “I took care or people, and I enjoyed my work very much.”

STEPHEN FEE: In 2007, Mike died in an accident, and Betty was left to raise her granddaughter Rhianna on her own.

BETTY LANNING: “After he passed away, it was a real struggle for me. I had to decide to buy medicines or feed my granddaughter or pay my utility bills.”

STEPHEN FEE: A series of debilitating medical conditions left Lanning, now 76, unable to work. Her only income, $1100 dollars a month in Social Security.

She started going to food pantries — even stopped taking two medications to save cash. But as the weather got colder, Lanning knew she wouldn’t have the money to heat her home.

BETTY LANNING: “I heat my home with fuel oil. And it’s very expensive. It’s like $3 dollars and something a gallon. So if you get 100 gallons of fuel oil, it’s over $300 dollars.”

STEPHEN FEE: “And then you bring in the income from Social Security which is $1100. So that’s a big chunk of your monthly income.”


BILL MURDOCK, CEO, EBLEN CHARITIES: “Well certainly this time of year, you know, heating is always at the top of the list.”

STEPHEN FEE: That’s Bill Murdock, executive director and CEO of Eblen Charities. Each year, Eblen helps thousands of Asheville families pay bills, put food on the table, and in wintertime, stay warm.

STEPHEN FEE: “You turn on the TV, and you hear that the economy is getting better and that gas prices are lower. Is that having an impact here for low-income families in Asheville?”

BILL MURDOCK, CEO, EBLEN CHARITIES: “So many of our families have been struggling for a long, long time. Even before the economy turned. And a lot of them are the first ones hit when something happens, and the last ones to recover if they ever do because they’re dealing with so much more than what a lot of us deal with.”

STEPHEN FEE: On a recent January morning, the waiting room at Eblen Charities was full by 9 o’clock. And most of the folks we met needed help paying heating bills.

STEPHEN FEE: “And how much are you looking at?”

JORGE LONDONO: “It’s $500 a month right now because of the space heaters.”

STEPHEN FEE: Forty year old Jorge Londono has four kids. He switched on electric heaters this winter, and now has overdue power bills totalling more than a thousand bucks.

Cecilia Lordman gets paid the minimum wage working at Burger King. On her salary, she and boyfriend Mike Roberts can’t afford their $300 energy bill.

JACKIE HENRY: “Her husband lost his one job.”

STEPHEN FEE: Jackie Henry brought her 36 year old daughter Debra Wolf to Eblen Charities. Wolf has four kids and owes $417 this month. The power company says it’s ready to switch off her electricity.

STEPHEN FEE: “We met some clients just now, some people it looks like their heating bills are almost half of what they pay for rent. You know, what kind of burden is that putting on families here?”

BILL MURDOCK, CEO, EBLEN CHARITIES: “Well it’s a tremendous burden, considering economic times and some were maybe not working, some maybe on social security, some maybe have two or three jobs.”

STEPHEN FEE: “In North Carolina, low-income families are eligible for a range of government programs to help stay warm in the winter. Generally they’re administered by the state and paid for by the federal government. But in recent years, federal spending on programs for the poor has been cut. For example, the federal utility bill subsidy only pays up to $400 a year in North Carolina — we met families who owe more than that each month. So increasingly, local governments are partnering with private nonprofit organizations to try to find new ways to help poor families cope with cool temperatures.”

STEPHEN FEE: Phillip Hardin is economic services director for the Buncombe County health and human services department, which includes Asheville. Instead of directly doling out federal heating dollars, his department contracts with nonprofits like Eblen Charities to do it instead. He says those nonprofits often have more latitude in distributing government aid.

PHILLIP HARDIN, BUNCOMBE COUNTY HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: “So they can combine funds in a lot of ways you know that if they’re administering three or four different pots of funds from us that could help with heating costs, then you may be able to pull from more than one funding source.”

STEPHEN FEE: “So they can basically stitch together state, federal resources, also use a little bit of private funds, and hopefully give people enough to pay a bill.”

PHILLIP HARDIN, BUNCOMBE COUNTY HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: “That’s absolutely right. Yeah. I mean they — and then they have their own funding, as you mentioned. You know that’s something that from a county government agency we don’t go out and recruit or solicit donations.”

STEPHEN FEE: After Betty Lanning came looking for help, Eblen worked out a deal to cover her regular heating bills. Government dollars cover a little more than half the cost — Eblen’s private funds and other donations, including funds from the local energy company, make up the rest.

STEPHEN FEE: “So does that basically mean that government isn’t doing enough?”

BILL MURDOCK, CEO, EBLEN CHARITIES: “You know, I don’t know if I could say that. I’m certainly not one to point a finger and say you know ‘You’re not doing enough.’ But I think there’s a great opportunity to do more. Needs are always going to outdistance resources. I think since the beginning of time that’s always going to happen.”

STEPHEN FEE: Phillip Hardin though says a public-private model might not work everywhere, especially in communities that don’t have charitable organizations.

PHILLIP HARDIN, BUNCOMBE COUNTY HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: “When you get into the smaller communities, those partners don’t exist. You know, there may not be but one nonprofit in some of these smaller counties if — maybe none.”

STEPHEN FEE: What’s more, just paying heating bills doesn’t solve the whole problem in western North Carolina, where many low-income families live in drafty older houses or poorly insulated mobile homes.

GRACIA O’NEILL, COMMUNITY ACTION OPPORTUNITIES: “We try to do work that you can’t really see from the inside.”

STEPHEN FEE: That’s where groups like Community Action Opportunities come in. The nonprofit has seven full-time weatherization professionals on staff who serve four counties in western North Carolina. They seal ducts, insulate doors and windows, and install energy-efficient lightbulbs to help families stretch their energy dollars — at no cost to the homeowner.

Technician Jack Heuer says those simple measures will save nearly $300 a year for the family living in this single-wide mobile home.

JACK HEUER, COMMUNITY ACTION OPPORTUNITIES: “We’re estimating to spend, labor and materials, close to $3500 dollars.”

STEPHEN FEE: Their work is also financed with federal funds, and the government requires any improvements to basically pay for themselves after 15 years. In this case, the project will be paid for in about 12 years.

But federal resources for weatherization have been trimmed as well. At the height of the federal stimulus program, Community Action Opportunities had an annual budget of $3.9 million dollars to weatherize 200 homes a year.

But today, the budget’s down to a million and the group can only work on a hundred homes annually. And while there are no firm figures on how many homes need insulating, the group says its wait list has only grown.

In a time of belt-tightening, Bill Murdock at Eblen Charities says there will always come a point when government assistance dollars just dry up. And private nonprofits have to fill in the gaps.

BILL MURDOCK, CEO, EBLEN CHARITIES: “We don’t feel we have that opportunity — that luxury for the lack of a better word — to say, ‘We can’t do anything. Sorry. We’ve helped you all we could,’ when we know we’re gonna go home and be warm tonight and they’re not.”

STEPHEN FEE: Betty Lanning credits Bill Murdock and Eblen Charities for keeping her and her granddaughter together. What would she do without them?

BETTY LANNING: “I don’t know. I would have to move my granddaughter in with somebody or — I don’t know how I would do it.”

​Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provid​es a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.​