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Cooling down in the heat puts extra financial strain on already struggling Americans

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Heat kills more people each year than any other natural force. July was the hottest month on record. But for people already living on the financial edge, the decision to crank up their AC to remain cool often means sacrificing the money they would spend on other costs of living like food. And while the federal government does have a program to provide aid for energy cost assistance, the focus has traditionally been on winter heating, and hardly any of that money is used for summer cooling. So what can we do to ensure people aren't dying of heat stroke inside their own homes? That's the question Mark Wolfe is addressing. He's the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. He joins us now. Mark, welcome.

MARK WOLFE: Well, thank you for inviting me.

SUMMERS: So Mark, I just want to start by putting this in some human terms. I mean, we are talking about people who are being forced to make these impossible choices between choosing whether they cool their homes or feed their families or pay other bills. Do you have a sense of just how big a problem this is, how many people are being impacted by, I guess, what you could call energy insecurity?

WOLFE: The problem is very significant. There are about 28 million households in the country eligible for energy assistance. So you think about that, it's almost 1 out of 3 households in the United States struggle to pay not just their energy bills but their food bills, their medical bills. And people who are most vulnerable are the elderly, those with preexisting conditions, and those families tend to be disproportionately low-income.

SUMMERS: As we mentioned, the federal government does have a program to provide aid for energy cost assistance, it's called the Low Income Energy Assistance Program. Can you tell us a little bit about that program and how effective it is at actually helping people who are struggling to afford keeping their homes cool this summer?

WOLFE: The program was passed about 40 years ago when most of the concern was about winter heating. And the program is reasonably effective at helping people stay safe during the winter. But the funding is only adequate to really help during that period. About 80% of the funds go for home heating. That's really the core problem. All the states agree we need to provide adequate cooling. We just don't have the resources to do it.

SUMMERS: I mean, so, Mark, given that landscape, given the logjam that we see on Capitol Hill on any number of issues including this one...

WOLFE: Right.

SUMMERS: ...What can be done right now to help people out there who are struggling to pay their energy bills? And in some cases, this is really a life-or-death issue.

WOLFE: In the short run, we need to recognize this is a national emergency. One, we're asking all utilities to agree to a voluntary moratorium on shutoffs for families, so nobody has to worry about their power being shut off if they can't pay the bill. Secondly, we're asking Congress to provide emergency funds. And I know it's going to be difficult. There's gridlock on Congress. But this is a national emergency. We have families at great risk. We know people are dying. It's all unnecessary.

SUMMERS: You know, Mark, I recently looked at one of these applications for help that's intended for people struggling to pay their energy bills on behalf of an elderly family member. And when I was going through the process, one of the things that struck me is that it's well-intended, but applying didn't look particularly easy. There's a lot of steps and a lot of documentation. And I was talking to some people, and it seems like some people aren't even aware that - even with limited funding that programs like these exist. Are there ways to make it easier for folks to know that these programs are out there and then to have access to the funds that are there if they're really struggling?

WOLFE: I completely agree. The forms, in some cases, are way too complicated. But the bottom-line problem is there isn't enough money available to help all the families who need help. You know, one of the weaknesses with not just this program but other federal programs is very little money is spent on marketing and outreach because every dollar that goes for outreach is a dollar that can't help a family. So there's a tendency not to spend money on outreach. So our thought is that if you receive Medicaid assistance or you receive SNAP or food stamp assistance, you should be automatically eligible for energy assistance as well.

SUMMERS: That's Mark Wolfe from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. Mark, thank you.

WOLFE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.