It’s getting cold in Arizona, a fact that raises thermostats here and eyebrows across the country. Most Americans believe Arizona is always sunny and warm in the winter and sunny and unbearable in the summer.
The perception is the problem.
Arizona’s mountain winters are no less miserable than the state’s desert summers. And, if you’re living on the edge of poverty and trying to decide whether to pay the utility bill or for a bag of groceries to feed your family, does it really matter where you live?
For thousands of Arizona families facing that dilemma, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has provided a safety net by making the choice a bit easier.
High unemployment, unaffordable energy bills and cold weather create crises for families whose energy bills represent a disproportionally high percentage of income. Generally, households in poverty pay around 16 percent of their income on home energy while the non-low-income population spends about 3.6 percent.
Unfortunately, Congress is threatening to slash LIHEAP funding for this winter by nearly 40 percent, leaving a potentially enormous hole in that safety net for the 35,450 Arizona households using LIHEAP to supplement their income and stay in their homes.
That means thousands of Arizona families and millions of Americans are at even greater risk of having the power shut off, one of the major factors leading to homelessness for families. It also means potentially higher costs for Arizona utility companies which could, at some point, be passed on to customers.
At the same time, Arizona faces the double whammy of losing LIHEAP funding that is already minimal because of the perception that, as a warm-weather state, the problem is not as severe as in Maine, Wisconsin or Iowa. Tell that to families trying to survive in sub-freezing weather in the winter and abysmally hot summers with few, if any, options to move.
Arizona is looking at a 47 percent cut in LIHEAP funding, which will drop the allocation from the current $34.2 million to approximately $19.6 million.
That is unacceptable on so many levels, but most importantly, for the families barely scraping by. That segment of the population is increasing dramatically in the current economic environment, as witnessed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture report that 15 percent of U.S. household, or 17.4 million families, lacked enough money to feed themselves at some point last year.
Arizona food banks are giving out more food than ever before and the number of food stamps distributed has jumped 14 percent in the last year to more than 1 million people.
Although we’d prefer to solve the big-picture problem in its entirety, one way of easing the burden is for voters to ask Congress to restore funding to the highly effective LIHEAP program so that millions of low-wage working families, the recently unemployed, retirees and medically challenged consumers can pay their utility bills and keep their homes at safe temperatures.
Putting on an extra sweater just isn’t enough.
Cynthia Zwick is executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association, which provides services and resources for the poor and working poor. For information or to make a donation to the Arizona Home Energy Assistance Fund, visit www.azcaa.org.