Even in a good year, only 6 percent of eligible low-income households, or about 30,000 of the nearly 500,000 who are eligible, receive emergency energy assistance during Arizona’s excessive summer heat to help with utility bills.
This year, that number will drop by nearly 4,500 due to an administrative error at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that caused a reduction of $1 million in emergency assistance funds from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. In addition, the Arizona Legislature made another $550,000 in cuts to the Utility Assistance, Repair, Replacement and Deposit Program.
On a national level, more than $10 million in funding will be affected because of the federal error. States receive these critical dollars as a “bonus” for finding other funding sources to assist in addressing the problem. Arizona consistently receives the $1 million bonus and is among the four states most severely affected by the loss.
The impact is exponential. Families forced out of their homes because they can’t afford to pay utility bills end up putting an additional strain on other social service agencies that provide housing, food and other support for families in need, particularly this time of year when heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer across all 50 states.
Arizona utility companies are experiencing a higher-than-normal increase in the number of customers falling behind on their utility bills this year.
Requests for emergency assistance right now at Arizona Public Service are up 36 percent from last year, and utility disconnects are up 11,000. In Phoenix, out of a total of 9,862 calls in May, only 1,000 people received utility assistance because of already-limited funding.
There is a way of addressing the problem that can, at the very least, help make a dent in a problem exacerbated by the current economic climate. President Bush can release funds from the Federal Emergency Contingency Fund that was established to address crisis situations.
Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., Gov. Janet Napolitano, Phoenix City Councilman Greg Stanton and others are urging the president to take that action. But, if the government’s response to the hurricane Katrina crisis several years ago is any indication, we may be beating our heads against the wall.
The low-income assistance program serves the state’s most vulnerable populations. Nearly 80 percent of the households served have at least one member who is 60 years or older, is disabled or has a child 5 years old or younger.
Arizona literally gets consistently short-changed when it comes to this type of funding. When contingency funds were recently released, Arizona received nothing and Connecticut got $3 million. How can they explain that inequity?
The Arizona Community Action Association recently launched an additional source of funding called Home Energy Assistance Fund, which provides one-time emergency funding of up to $500 for qualifying low-income families.
We are working closely with utility companies and other donors to increase the funds available to help those who qualify. But those efforts were originally started to help make up for the gap in funding that existed before this crisis hit. Now the problem is much worse.
What can you do? Call or write members of the Arizona congressional delegation or contact the White House directly at www.whitehouse.gov to urge the president to take quick, decisive action to release funds that so critical to saving lives. We really can’t afford to wait.
Cynthia Zwick is executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association (www.azcaa.org), which promotes economic self-sufficiency for low-income people through advocacy, education and partnerships to prevent and alleviate poverty.