Each year, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania families struggle to keep the heat on in their homes when the cold weather sets in. In some cases, they may face sickness or even death as they suffer without heat.
In other cases, they must resort to unsafe heating sources to stay warm, putting themselves and their neighbors in peril. This energy affordability crisis will quickly become a full-fledged public health crisis if Washington strips a life-saving program from the federal budget.
LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) is often the only source of help for these families. Last year, LIHEAP helped over 348,000 Pennsylvania households keep the heat on in their homes.
Almost all of these homes have older adults, people with disabilities, or young children living there. The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate LIHEAP, putting our most vulnerable families and entire communities at risk. Congress needs to step up to protect families by saving this vital and effective program.
LIHEAP saves lives all over the country, but it is particularly necessary in Pennsylvania, where many families struggling to make ends meet often must pay 17% of their monthly income on utility bills alone, about three times more than they would pay in neighboring states like New Jersey and Ohio.
Some low-income Pennsylvanians pay even more, up to 30 percent of their income, on utility bills. In contrast, Pennsylvania families who are not low-income typically pay just 3.6 percent of their monthly income on utility bills.
We all think of heat during the winter as being a necessity, but for lower-income utility customers who are often struggling to get by on low wages or meager retirement benefits, LIHEAP is the only way to keep heat and safety within reach.
Eliminating LIHEAP will make energy costs unsustainable for many families in need and will leave many with nowhere to turn for help. LIHEAP is the only federal program designed to respond to home heating emergencies.
This efficient and effective program helps people get their heat turned on after losing utility service, and also helps prevent an imminent loss of heat in the first place.
These are once-per-year grants that are paid directly to the oil companies and utility companies that supply home energy and to organizations making heater repairs in the cold-weather months of November-March.
Last winter, LIHEAP grants helped these families fill their oil tanks, pay a utility bill, and for almost 7,000 families statewide, LIHEAP helped repair a broken heater, keeping families warm for years to come.
Without LIHEAP, many thousands of our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, including seniors and children, will suffer in the cold this year.
LIHEAP serves urban and rural families alike with direct assistance, but these grants do more than just keep people warm.
LIHEAP grants allow seniors and people with disabilities to keep electricity in their homes needed to run necessary medical equipment and keep medicines refrigerated.
LIHEAP grants save parents and caregivers from facing the choice between feeding their kids and keeping the heat on. LIHEAP grants allow kids to stay healthy and sleep safely in their homes so they can be prepared to go to school and learn.
LIHEAP grants also protect public safety. When a family has no heat, they may be forced to rely on dangerous heating sources like kerosene heaters or open stoves. These desperate solutions put families in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Fires caused by unsafe heating sources result in homelessness, property damage, injury, and sometimes death. More than 1,500 Pennsylvania families had lost utility service and were using potentially unsafe heating sources as of December 15, 2016.
Unless Congress stands up for LIHEAP, even more people will suffer utility termination this coming winter and will be forced to resort to unsafe heating sources that will put families and neighborhoods at risk.
LIHEAP is an effective program that provides direct results and often saves lives. Vulnerable Pennsylvania families need LIHEAP to keep safe, warm homes and all Pennsylvanians need LIHEAP to protect the health and safety of our communities.
About three-quarters of all LIHEAP grants go to families with older adults, people with disabilities, or young children, and they are counting on Congress to stand up for them.
Congress must ensure that LIHEAP funding is restored in order to make us all safer and not leave vulnerable Pennsylvanians out in the cold.
Maripat Pileggi is an attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.