States cut programs to help poor cool their homes

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Many states hit hardest by this week's searing heat wave have drastically cut or entirely eliminated programs that help poor people pay their electric bills, forcing thousands to go without air conditioning when they need it most.

Oklahoma ran out of money in just three days. Illinois cut its program to focus on offering heating money for the winter ahead. And Indiana isn't taking any new applicants. When weighed against education and other budget needs, cooling assistance has been among the first items cut, and advocates for the poor say that could make this heat wave even more dangerous.

"I've never seen it this bad," said Timothy Bruer, executive of Energy Services Inc., which administers the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in 14 Wisconsin counties. The group has turned away about 80 percent of applicants seeking cooling assistance.

The sizzling summer heat comes after a bitterly cold, snowy winter in many places and at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high.

The cuts began after Congress eliminated millions of dollars in potential aid, forcing state lawmakers to scale back energy assistance programs. The agencies that distribute the money are worried that the situation could get even worse next year because the White House is considering cutting the program in half.

Joyce Agee, a retired secretary from South Beloit, Ill., said she typically receives about $300 in utility assistance each summer and up to $600 for the winter to supplement her Social Security income. After running her air conditioner constantly, she's worried about her next electric bill.

"I've cut back on what I eat so that I can pay my light bills and everything else," she said.

The government provided $4.7 billion for low-income energy assistance for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, down $400 million from the year before. The money is primarily used by states to help with heating bills in winter, which lasts longer and generates higher utility bills.

But dozens of states, particularly those in the South and Midwest, have traditionally used a portion of the money to provide help during the summer — especially for elderly people and those with medical conditions that could be fatal in high heat.

"Energy assistance helps vulnerable people. If they can't turn their air conditioner on because they're afraid to pay the bill, there's documented cases of people dying over time. It's totally preventable," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which is made up of state officials who give out the federal money.

The hot air mass that has plagued the Plains for days began spreading eastward Thursday, roasting residents of the Ohio Valley and the East Coast under a sizzling sun that made people sick, closed schools and prompted cities to offer cooling centers and free swimming.

Forecasters issued excessive heat warnings for a huge section of the country, from Kansas to Massachusetts.

The temperature surpassed 100 degrees in Toledo, Ohio — just a few degrees shy of a record set in 1930. Combined with 69 percent humidity, it felt as hot as 107.

The weather is suspected of contributing to a number of deaths across the nation. At least six more fatalities were reported Thursday, including a Michigan restaurant cook who suffered a heart attack after being sent home from his job and a teenage boy who drowned while swimming at summer camp in the same state.

Missouri officials confirmed five heat-related deaths since June. Kansas City authorities were investigating at least 13 others in which heat was suspected.

Emergency room visits were way up, according to public health officials, mainly because of people suffering from heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Since the recession began, requests for heating and cooling assistance have skyrocketed, with 8.9 million households nationwide receiving federal help this year. That's up from 5.8 million in 2008-09.

Some states scaled back or canceled cooling assistance programs because they feared the government money would be cut further or would not arrive in time to help with winter heating bills.

The program was never meant to be the sole source of aid, but, Wolfe said, states are now "broke" and have few other options. Donations to social service groups that offer help have also dropped.

In Indiana, only those applicants who sought winter assistance were permitted to apply for help this summer. Federal funding arrived so late that state officials gave $100 to people who received winter utility money. That was double the normal amount, but it left nothing for new applicants in many places.

Illinois canceled its entire summer utility program because the money was already spent. About 70,000 households received aid in 2010, compared with 421,000 for the winter program.

Oklahoma officials doled out the entire $22 million for the summer program in just three days earlier this month.

"There's always more need than we have money," said Jeff DeGraff, a Louisiana Housing Finance Agency spokesman.

Michigan saw the biggest drop in its federal funding, which tumbled from $238 million to $38 million. Texas' funding fell by $28.6 million.

The situation could get worse next year. President Barack Obama has proposed cutting funding for the program to $2.5 billion.

States are worried. A group of governors plans to send a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to maintain the federal funding at current levels next year.

"It seems like the wrong time to be cutting energy assistance," Wolfe said. "People need help getting by. There are a lot of people right on the edge. To cut them now is cruel."

In the area around Rockford, Ill., which was especially hard hit by the economic downturn, 2,000 households that typically receive help to keep their electricity on must do without. City officials have been steering residents to cooling centers and trying to spread the word about how to avoid overexposure, said George Davis, executive director of Rockford's human services department.

"We don't have a lot of other options," he said.

Mary Ware, a 62-year-old Chicago woman who suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes and requires dialysis three times a week, lives in a basement apartment with her son and daughter. She receives disability income but can't afford air-conditioning.

She described her apartment as "miserable."

"It's very hot, and all I got is a box fan," Ware said.

Officials in many states say they sympathize with those struggling against the heat, but they insist helping the poor in the winter has to be a priority because heating costs are higher, the season is longer and the demand for aid is greater.

That reasoning offered little comfort to the 30 people who had signed up Thursday morning to get energy assistance in Milwaukee, where applications have risen 20 percent since this week's heat wave began.

"We've been making far more exceptions than we normally would for safety reasons," energy assistance supervisor Sonya Eddie said.

Koyama Stokes, 31, of Milwaukee, received $300 to put toward the $600 she owes to keep her electricity on. She said she had to attend two funerals over the last month in Mississippi, and the trips broke her budget. She provides for her two disabled children and a niece and nephew using $1,500 in monthly Social Security payments.

She was thankful for the help she received Thursday but said deeper cuts in energy assistance would devastate her.

"I don't think I could survive," she said. "I can't see my kids looking at me hungry."


  • OPM
    I love how everyone is soooo generous when it comes to spending other people's money. What are you doing personally to help cool the poor? That goes for that cranky jerk "me" whose comments were properly removed.
  • Mike
    Free AC? Seriously? Tap into the reserve money, what!? Unreal! Yes, it would be the last term of anyone in public office that tapped reserve funding for air conditioning. Wake up, this is life, you want something, go get it. And yes, I am sitting in my 68 degree office, and I love it. You know why? Because I busted my knuckles to get here, to own my own business and flip on my AC when I want to. My dad did the same, only instead he worked at the mills, 100+ temps, no AC. My mother, school teacher, no AC, summer school teacher for extra $, no AC. The kids, we went to Catholic school, you know how they paid for it, no AC in the house, not until we left for college. No AC in grade school or in church, we got by all right. Compassion?, yeah, we took care of the elderly in the community, made sure they had what they needed. Hot days?, yup, without a doubt. When it got too bad, we walked to the gas station, to the library, to a neighbors house.... get the picture? We took care of ourselves and those around us in our community, we didn't stick our mitts out for a handout from the GOVERNMENT no-less. Out of work, broke? Yup. My brother was laid off for 3 years, working McD's and other labor jobs, lost his apartment, moved into a shack of an apartment (different state), no AC. I built my business from scratch (other than the foundation my folks laid for me that is). Meaning I was BROKE 8 years ago, no AC, no extra fans, no extra money for a garden hose let alone a high water bill. Guess what I did? I got by; I walked to the gas station, to the library, you get it? My then girlfriend, now wife, and our dog, we made it through just fine, no handout, no tax money keep our temps down. I here we have some great cooling centers here in Indy. Have compassion, go help an elderly person, sick, or pregnant woman to the cooling center, help your community, so your government doesn't think they have to.
  • It is all what you get used to
    I grew up in the 70's in Southern California. NO A?C in the house, car, school or stores. We had multipule 110+ degree days and 90 degree nights. It was hot and all we had were windows, shade trees, fans and the good old garden hose to soak ourselves with. My whole family made it through each summer (including my 80 year old grandmother). Now I have an A/C house, A/C car amd an A/C job. I don't think I could stand this heat without it. My kids do not know life without A/C and I doubt they could stand it either. I hate to say it but we are a nation of softies who have become spoiled.
  • cry me a river (of sweat?)
    No one had A/C 60 years ago and they seemed to survive. Besides, once the so-called poor can prove that they don't have cell phones, cars, cable, internet, etc. etc. etc. then I might, repeat MIGHT, feel sorry for them.

    Esta - I went to Catholic schools and sweated through many miserable Augusts without A/C.
  • Hey, Josh
    I grew up in the South and attended public schools that didn't have air conditioning. For the first month of school, everyday was as hot as it is here today. The kids that went to the Catholic school had a/c, but I didn't ask why my school didn't have it because I knew with 3 kids, my folks couldn't afford the tuition.

    Air conditioning is a luxury, albeit a much more affordable one these days, and not something the government should be relied upon to supply.

    Go sit outside under a shady tree and leave the taxpayers' dollars for more important issues. Yes, it might be uncomfortable, but I doubt it's life threatening.
  • Written while...
    you're sitting at a computer in an air conditioned home or office, right?

    Have you ever been unemployed, caring for 2 kids under 5 years old and had to explain to them that there's not much you can do about how hot it is in your apartment? What do you say when the heat makes your kids feel lethargic and sick because its just so humid? Being unemployed, you don't even have money for gas to hop in the car and go walk around an air conditioned mall or library.

    It amazes me how many people have this "that sucks, but not my problem" attitude towards others. I'm not saying that everyone should be entitled to free air conditioning or utilities, but have a little compassion for your fellow human being who doesn't have it as good as you do.
  • Where?
    Can someone point out to me the section of the US or Indiana Constitution that guarantees the right to air conditioning?
    • Sad
      It is sad that Indiana's job creations in recent years have barely produced liveable wages. Due to this you just create a situation where people cant cover all their expenses. And assistance is needed, more often than not, funds are lacking due to the lack of taxes not being paid by the business they brought here.
    • poor aid
      Use our money we have in reserve Governor,to help with electric bills for the poor. I am sure glad this is your last term in office.

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