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Commentary: Congress must address the coming utility bill crisis

  • Updated
Mark Wolfe

Mark Wolfe

Like all Americans, it is our hope that with a vaccine or effective treatment, we can get the coronavirus pandemic under control in 2021 and return to normalcy. And, the priority for this nation must be to ensure that the people suffering from the effects of the pandemic are able to get back on their feet.

After all, those hurting from the COVID-19 scourge are our friends, family and neighbors. For example, these restaurant and hospitality workers, along with others who lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic, did not make bad choices — they are innocent victims.

One aspect of helping our fellow Americans maintain their human dignity is making sure that everyone can afford their utility bills.

Thankfully, states and utilities acted quickly after the pandemic hit by imposing mandatory and voluntary shut-off moratoriums for those who lost their jobs and couldn’t pay their electric and gas bills. But those moratoriums are now beginning to expire, putting millions of families at risk of losing access to electric and natural gas service.

In fact, of the 32 states and the District of Columbia that issued mandatory shutoff moratoriums, 10 have already expired — in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

Moratoriums are set to expire in 12 more states before the end of September. But many of the workers whose jobs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are still out of work, with no income for the last five months. And now, they have to come up with money to pay for not only their most recent electricity and natural gas bills but all of their electric and natural gas bills since the moratoriums were put in place.

Not to be alarmist, but the numbers of Americans struggling to pay their utilities is alarming. In Pennsylvania, delinquent customer gas and electric bills have soared to $479 million through the end of June, up $139 million or 41% over than 2019 levels.

In North Carolina, nearly 1.4 million people are eligible for disconnection. We have seen similar shocking statistics on unpaid utility bills in Massachusetts, Iowa, Delaware and Wisconsin and other states. And keep in mind — these numbers were collected before the supplemental unemployment benefits were allowed to expire at the end of July.

Understand, without access to electricity and natural gas, families cannot charge their phones, refrigerate their food and medicine, turn on their lights so their children can study and safely shelter-in-place for the remainder of this summer and heat their homes during the winter.

The question is, what is the country going to do about it?

It is hoped Congress will pass an additional round of pandemic relief and dedicate the funds to ensure low-income Americans affected by COVID-19 do not get cut off from their utilities.

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But, unfortunately, Congress is dramatically underfunding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Known as LIHEAP, it is a decades-old program that helps people who cannot afford to pay their gas and electric bills.

In fact, all 50 states plus the District of Columbia manage LIHEAP programs to help families who struggle to pay their home energy bills.

However, today, the program is only funded enough to cover part of the energy bill for one in six eligible households, or about 6 million low-income families. And this year, 8.5 million additional families need help, having lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 — bringing the total number of eligible up to almost 44 million households.

Thankfully, Congress did provide an additional $900 million for energy assistance as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March. But, that funding barely scratches the surface of what this country will need.

In response, our organization, which represents the priorities of the executives who run LIHEAP across all 50 states and D.C., asked for an additional $4.3 billion to address the full scope of the crisis.

The funds would be used to help an additional 11.2 million households and provide the funds necessary to purchase and operate 1 million air conditioning units for low-income elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Last month, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell stated that with diminished government benefits, many Americans will not be able to afford rent, food, utilities and other payments.

This situation is dire.

By providing desperately needed funding for LIHEAP, Congress could help. With so many deeply complex problems facing our nation, LIHEAP presents a simple solution to a critical problem, and we encourage the Congress to allocate $4.3 billion to LIHEAP.

Mark Wolfe is an energy economist who serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. Cass Lovejoy is policy director of NEADA. They wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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