Last week, 43 senators from mostly cold-weather states signed a letter opposing President Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the program that helps low-income people heat and cool their homes.
The program — the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP — provides a critical support to low-income Americans in the winter, as the senators pointed out. But there is less political attention on how the elimination of the program may increase heat-related deaths.
In many warm-weather states, state assistance is so paltry that the federal program provides most of the financial support that low-income people have to ensure they can cool their homes. This means that elimination of the program would be particularly dire for people in Southern and Western states, said Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association.
“In warm-weather states, you have federal funding but there’s no state funding, no utility funding, so you have a different culture, where in those states you’re on your own,” Wolfe told ThinkProgress. “You have more families who are in need for help, but there’s no discount program to make cooling more affordable.”
According to the National Weather Service, the heat in Southern California could break records on Friday, when temperatures could rise to 120 degrees. In Arizona, the temperature almost hit 120 degrees in late June, forcing the homeless and those without cool homes to find shelter in what are known as hydration and cooling centers, which are often set up in local libraries and churches.
Extreme heat can kill. Nearly one-third of over 10,000 weather-related deaths in the U.S. were attributed to excessive natural heat from 2006–2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with most of the deaths occurring in the South and West. Lower-income households spend 7.2 percent of their annual income on energy bills on average, according to a 2016 study by Energy Efficiency for All.
The problem of soaring temperatures, and the resulting deaths, is only growing worse due to climate change, according to a report published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change.
But heat-related deaths are less often less visible than deaths from the cold, which makes it harder to push for policy changes on the state and federal level that would allow low-income people to afford air-conditioning. Deaths are not always reported as “heat-related” on death certificates, and there is great variability in the data from one year to the next, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This lack of data makes it challenging to come to a conclusion about increases and decreases in heat-related deaths over the years. After the 1995 Chicago heat wave, for example, The American Journal of Public Health found that the medical examiner undercounted by hundreds the number of deaths that were related to the heat wave.
Still, Wolfe said, there is enough information about the effects of extreme heat on people’s health that it should be a national priority to help people in warm-weather states. Wolfe said the federal formula is still weighted toward cold-weather states despite increases in the populations of warm-weather states and more knowledge about heat-related illness and death.
“The federal formula is weighted toward cold weather states because it was established 30 years ago, when we knew a lot less about the impact of heat on families’ health. So the funding formulas are stuck in time,” Wolfe said. “But the bigger problem is that overall federal funding has been cut from $5.1 billion to $3.3 billion, so it’s particularly hard on those states.”
“Between their resources and federal resources, cold-weather states will reach 43 percent of the eligible population, which is a pretty significant percentage,” Wolfe added. “But for warm weather states, it’s like 10 percent, so much these are much thinner programs.”
If LIHEAP were to be eliminated, some warm-weather states, including Texas, may not have any program at all to help low-income people cool their homes. Last year, Texas ended a program called Lite-Up Texas, that helped low-income families pay electric bills.
Some states could use ratepayer funds, which come from surcharges on regulated energy utilities to fund programs that provide discounts on low-income people’s utility bills. But the problem is that many warm-weather states, such as Arkansas and Mississippi won’t raise rates. These states are often relying on cooling centers, such as community centers, churches, and libraries to keep people safe, which serves as a Band-Aid solution to a problem that could be easily fixed through more funding to LIHEAP.
‘Right now there are programs in warm-weather states,” Wolfe said. “They’re not well-funded, but there are programs that help among the neediest in those states. If Trump was successful in eliminating money for LIHEAP, people would die because there would be absolutely no money to help them.”