The American Safety Net is built for cold winters. Hot summer threatens her.

For decades, the federal government has helped the poor with energy costs during cold winters. Now the hot summer is straining the SSN.

Melissa Bisong, 40, stands outside the NeedLink Nashville offices after filling out an application to prevent her power outages.  (William Deshazer for The Washington Post)
Melissa Bisong, 40, stands outside the NeedLink Nashville offices after filling out an application to prevent her power outages. (William Deshazer for The Washington Post)

Nashville – The moment NeedLink Nashville opened its doors just after the Labor Day holiday, Melissa Bisong walked into the nonprofit’s office with an overdue electric bill. Four months after losing her job as a home health aide, she didn’t want to miss an opportunity to keep her strength going.

“I hope,” she said, stopping warning at hand, “they will help me before the time is up.”

More than 40 years ago, Congress created an important safety net, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, to financially help people survive cold winters and the costs of running heat. But hot summers are now creating a huge new financial burden on Americans whose air conditioners add to their energy bills for longer periods of time.

The new summer’s financial tally shows how the government is struggling to keep pace with the ways in which climate change – during the hottest months of the year – threatens the financial livelihoods of some of the most vulnerable Americans.

This year provides a vivid example. Thanks to the funds related to the epidemic, the Biden administration was able to More than double the $3.8 billion federal energy assistance program. Administration officials said it represented the largest one-year investment in the program since it began in 1981.

But advocates said about 85 percent had already gone to winter heating bills, which have also risen as global energy prices have soared. This left little for people who experienced yet another hot summer.

By the time the management instructions In July to use the additional funding to support summer cooling costs and build community cooling centers, many states already used stimulus money to pay off huge debts that have accumulated during the pandemic, said Mark Wolf, executive director of National Energy Assistance. Directors Association. The money has run out in some states. Others, such as Colorado and Pennsylvania, who focus their spending on heating costs, have closed their energy assistance programs for the summer.

“The dilemma is that we don’t have enough funding to cover heating and cooling,” Wolf said. “This is a very serious problem.”

From the Southeast to West Mountain, leaders of special assistance groups and state-run energy assistance programs said they received requests for help with electricity bills this summer. People who have never called for help call and email and show up in their office with double or triple overdue bills. You usually see these groups.

As with rising rent and food prices, the burden of higher electricity bills falls mainly on low-income families who are already spending a greater share of their earnings on utilities. In response to the pandemic, the Census Bureau has begun surveying Americans to see how they are coping with rising energy costs.

A Washington Post analysis of survey responses collected from July 27 to August 8 found that nearly 20 percent of households making less than $25,000 said they maintained temperatures in their homes at levels they felt were unsafe or unsafe. Unhealthy for a few months out of the year. This was more common among Hispanic and black participants, regardless of their income, than among whites and Asians.

As temperatures rise due to climate change, air conditioning units are using more energy to keep homes comfortable, generating staggering bills and shutdown warnings for those who fail to pay.

About 20 million Americans are behind on utility bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Administrators Association, which represents state officials who administer energy assistance programs. They owe an average of $800, double the amount they had before the pandemic.

“Cooling costs are certainly increasing not only because of energy prices but also because cooling is more necessary as a result of climate change,” said Diana Hernandez, associate professor of medical and social sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

July of this year has been rated as Nashville’s second hottest city ever. In NeedLink Nashville, the number of requests for assistance in July and August was 25 percent above the pre-pandemic benchmark, according to senior program manager Sarah Moore. The organization opens its online application on Monday morning and closes it after 75 applications, the most it can process in a week.

“We had to cut it in 45 minutes,” Moore said.

Several factors have caused an increase in the number of people in need this year, making it difficult to separate the role of the increasingly intense summer heat. Rising natural gas prices have increased the cost of electricity production. Electricity bills in August were up 15.8 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest increase since 1981. And although the labor market has recovered from its pandemic losses, many people are still struggling to get by. reimbursement. Debt accumulated during that period.

Even before supply chain turmoil and Russia’s war in Ukraine boosted American energy prices, the question of how to keep cool during the summer — and how to pay for it — had become a growing problem for poorer Americans. In the country’s hottest regions, access to air conditioning isn’t just a convenience — for seniors and people with chronic medical conditions, it can mean life or death.

For 78-year-old Annette Todd Moore, who has asthma and relies on a breathing machine, turning the air conditioner off wasn’t an option.

“I need the air conditioner in my house,” she said while sitting in a waiting room in a Nashville needlelink after her electric bill doubled this summer. “As the heat index goes up, it’s life or death.”

Even after Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, crickets were still chirping and temperatures were still mild in Tennessee. “Oh my God, it’s so hot out there,” said a woman who inquired for help before she drank a glass of water.

Since losing her job this spring, Bisong has spent time at home, keeping her calm and cooking for her 7- and 5-year-olds. To help make ends meet, she cleaned the homes of two families.

She suspected her air conditioner was causing her electric bill to soar this summer. “This summer has been very hot,” she said, billing a $253 late balance. “Definitely hotter than last summer.”

New England lawmakers, whose voters have historically benefited most from the federal fuel assistance program, continue to push for more funding. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Senators Jack Reed (D.I.) led an effort to warn members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee that without the assistance program “we will not meet the needs of low-income families this winter.”

Wolf and other advocates urged Congress to increase the program next year by more than the $4 billion that the House and Senate initially approved in the budget. Olivia Wynne, a staff attorney at the National Center for Consumer Law, said the funding should “go north about $8 billion” to meet year-round heating and cooling needs.

“We literally turn over the couch and take out the coins,” said Joshua Hollins, executive director of the Louisiana Housing Corporation, which oversees the state’s energy aid funds.

Louisiana is no stranger to harsh summers. A spokesperson for Entergy, the state’s largest utility, said this summer delivered some of the warmest weather ever across the four states it serves, “resulting in a record level of electricity use by our customers.”

The increasing number of triple-digit temperature days has put pressure on Louisiana’s energy aid from the federal government. Even in a year of apparent exuberance, when funding is much higher than usual, Hollins said he’s about two weeks away from running out of money.

On top of rising energy prices and extreme heat, Louisiana residents are also paying the price for the recent climate catastrophe. Since Hurricane Ida made landfall last year, utility companies have funneled the cost of repairing power lines and equipment to customers, adding to an already bloated electricity bill. And while people who live in urban areas can seek refuge in air-conditioned movie theaters, malls and bookstores, Hollins said that in rural parts of the state, those options don’t exist.

“I have people out there with $600 and $700 energy bills — and they’re on low incomes,” Hollins said. “I am thinking about getting somewhere just to relax, when you get to some of those rural areas, it just isn’t there. It’s what keeps me up at night.”

In Missouri, energy assistance officials saw a spike in customers with high electric bills this summer, as they doubled benefits for residents in a crisis to $600 — and then doubled it again to $1,200.

While policymakers generally agree that a warm home is essential, some still see cooling as a luxury. Most states have policies that prevent blackouts during the winter, but less than half of the states have similar policies for the summer.

Although many states now provide year-round assistance, a handful of them still only help residents with their winter energy bills. Wolf said this approach has made sense for decades home heating costs In the coldest parts of the country it can be double or triple your annual electric bill. But he said today’s heating and cooling bills are “balancing out” in some places, while government assistance is not.

For some, air conditioning has become too expensive to afford at all.

In Denver, the nonprofit Energy Outreach Colorado said many of the people it serves have never had to own an air conditioning unit. “Now people who usually call us because they have an oven problem, they’re calling us saying, ‘Is there anything you can do to help us with some kind of cooling?'” spokeswoman Denise Steptoe said. “

During the pandemic, New York City distributed 74,000 air conditioners to low-income seniors isolated in their apartments. Later, when Columbia University’s Hernandez surveyed recipients, she found that some were reluctant to use them on hot days because of the cost.

In Memphis, about half of the average summer electricity bill comes from air conditioning, according to the city’s electric company, Memphis Light, and gas and water. The average monthly price consumers pay just to air-condition their homes rose to $125 this summer, up from $75 in the past two years.

“I’ve seen people unable to live in their homes this year due to a lack of air conditioning, so they’ve gone to live with the family,” said Mary Hamlett, vice president of family programs at the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association. in Memphis. “Either the two units break and they can’t afford to fix it, or they can’t afford to run it in a way that makes it cold enough.”

The day after Bisung visited the aid office, the lights went out in her apartment in East Nashville. She said, “I was like, ‘Oh my God.'” I was so scared.

To her relief, it turns out that it was just a slight power outage. Soon she got the call: The nonprofit would pay her credit. Going forward, Besong plans to do more house cleaning to help pay the bills.

“I’m going to get the help I can get now,” she said while frying chicken patties for dinner. Her daughter Caydence was playing at the table while her son Carter worked on spelling homework under the kitchen lights.

She added, “And then, I’ll be able to return the favor. Push it forward.”

Phillips reported from Washington. Emmanuel Martinez contributed to this report.

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