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Millions of low-income households burdened by fuel insecurity

During this time of year, millions of people struggle to pay their heating bills. But how widespread is the issue of fuel insecurity, and what assistance is available? Mark Wolfe, of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more. This is part of an ongoing series of reports called “Chasing the Dream,” which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Of course, millions of poor people across the country face similar challenges paying their heating bills.

    How widespread is the problem, and what's behind it?

    Yesterday, we spoke to Mark Wolfe in Washington. He's the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

    Mark Wolfe, how significant is fuel insecurity in these winter months?

  • MARK WOLFE, Executive Director, National Energy Assistance Directors Association:

    Well, it's very significant.

    The average family spends about 2 to 3 percent of their income on home heating. For a low-income family, though, they spend maybe 10 to 15 percent of their income on home heating. And the reason is simple. They just have less money, so that, if you are's poor, it doesn't mean you use less energy. You still have a house to heat.

    And, if anything, your house might be older, might be leaky. So your bill is very high relative to income, where, for a middle-income family, it's much lower. So when we think about home energy, you have to think about just the burden it places on poor families to stay connected to the grid, to be able to continue to buy home heating oil.

    And the problem is that the energy assistance program, LIHEAP, has been cut from $5.1 billion in 2010 to about $3.3 billion now. So, we have lost close to $2 billion in assistance to help families.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Besides the Northeast or the Midwest, I mean, are places, say, for example, in the Deep South worse off because they don't necessarily have the infrastructure, they don't prepare for it like the Northeast does?

  • MARK WOLFE:

    Well, it's a little bit different.

    Here's what happens. You know, there's federal funding that is sort of base funding that we call it. And then states utilities add money to that. Most of the extra money that is added to energy assistance is in the Northeast and the West states.

    Also in those states, they have very strong shutoff protections. So, you fall behind in your bill, say, in Massachusetts, you can't be shut off. It's a public health concern. As you go South, especially in the Southern states and many of the Western states, there really are no shutoff protections, or they are much weaker.

    So, if you are a low-income family, say, in North Carolina, it's much harder. You fall behind in your bill, the state has less money to work with. There's fewer utility supports. And they're more likely to get into a shutoff situation or fall further behind in their bill because there's just less money to help them with.

    I mean, this is not like curing cancer. This is a very, very straightforward problem. It's a bill. And in the Northeast and the West states, they have more money to work than, say, in the South or Western states.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

    This gets to a little bit of the philosophical question of, what is the role of government and what is the role of assistance in poverty, right?

  • MARK WOLFE:

    Well, exactly.

    I mean, in a sense, there's a broad agreement that programs like SNAP, or food stamps, Medicaid, they are entitlement programs, in the sense that, if you are eligible based on income, there will always be money to help you.

    Energy assistance is a discretionary grant program, which means that, when the appropriation runs out, the program ends, so that there is a real difference. There's a societal agreement to help people with food, to help old age — elderly people with Social Security. There's not a broad societal agreement to help people with energy. And that's the real key difference.

    One of the other differences in energy, though — and this is where I think we get into this situation of families getting to unaffordable cases — it's not just the price of energy. It's also how much you use.

    So, if this turns out — this winter turns out to continue to be as cold as it is, then families will just need more money to pay their energy bill, and there's nothing to help them. That's the problem. So, they have to substitute. And low-income families will buy less medicine, less food because they have to pay their energy bill.

    So it is a complicated question. But we have answered it in the area of food. We have answered it with, in cases, if you are low-income, getting housing assistance. We haven't really answered it with energy.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Mark Wolfe, the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, thanks so much.

  • MARK WOLFE:

    Thank you.

Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides 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.

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