Winter may be over, but for millions of families across the country, the heating bills remain.
The National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents the state officials that administer the federal low-income energy assistance program, has compiled some early data showing more households have fallen behind in utility payments this winter. These are households on the edge, because in most states, after the cold weather moratorium is lifted at the end of April, they face cutoff of electricity or natural gas service.
Here are some of the states and the number of households in arrears:
- California: 1.7 million households have fallen behind in their utility payments, up 6 percent over last year.
- Iowa: 218,360 households, up 6 percent
- Massachusetts: 100,000 households, up 5 percent
- Pennsylvania: 650,477 households, up 30 percent
From those four states alone, the amount of money owed in household utility bills is more than $770 million.
The rising tide of delinquent energy bills came as the number of households receiving money in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program climbed 3.8 percent to 5.8 million households, the highest level of families seeking assistance in 16 years, says NEADA Director Mark Wolfe. He blames the one-two punch of the slowing economy and high energy prices. States have tried to stretch the federal dollars by giving lower grants to each household seeking help, so that the average grant is around $300—less than half of the cost of winter home heating in any cold weather state.
The average cost of keeping warm this winter in the more than 50 percent of homes that use natural gas was estimated at about $870, a 7.2 percent increase over last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. For homes that used heating oil—a small percentage nationwide but heavily concentrated in the Middle Atlantic and Northeast—the average price was a whopping $1,990, up 35.6 percent over last year. "Combined with increasing prices for gasoline and now food, many low-income families are at risk of falling even further into poverty," says Wolfe, whose organization is calling for an increase in federal assistance, which reached $2.6 billion this year.
Although some lawmakers favored including a $1 billion supplement in energy assistance money in the economic stimulus package, the idea was abandoned before the fast-moving package was brought to a vote.