Energy for Low-Income Households – What to Know

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Energy prices in the US have risen dramatically. In January of 2023, consumers paid, on average, 14.3 percent more for their energy bills than they did the previous year. The rate increases varied by state, with Floridians seeing about 13 percent and residents of Hawaii having to contend with over 34 percent. Electricity in homes is a basic necessity not only for comfort but also for sanitation and medical reasons.

These rate hikes are putting an increasing strain on low-income families, whereas higher-earning families may need help to absorb the added expense. Thankfully, some programs play a crucial role in supporting low-income households by ensuring access to affordable and reliable energy services. Financial assistance and energy efficiency upgrades help alleviate the burden of high energy costs and create more sustainable and equitable communities.

“Many low-income families spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy. The goal of our program is to reduce the burden for those families so that they are paying the median energy burden of the state of Nevada,” shares Maria Wortman-Meshberger, the chief of employment and support services at the Division of Welfare and Support Services in Nevada.

However, not everyone is aware of these programs: “We find that many families might not know about energy assistance, or it is the last thing they want to apply for, especially in our older Nevadans. Sometimes they’ll continue to struggle to pay their bills instead of maybe applying for assistance,” says Wortman-Meshberger. “Many people know about SNAP or Medicaid but will wait until their power may be shut off to act on it. We can help if they qualify and help stop the disconnection. I really encourage families to apply early and see if they qualify.”

According to Wortman-Meshberger, something as simple as assistance paying an energy bill can really help a family. “Participants tell us how amazing and helpful it can be to have help with energy costs so that the money they do have can be used for their other needs. It means a lot to them. Anytime you get any kind of benefit or social service to help relieve a financial burden on a family, it’s a big deal.”

Keep reading to learn about the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), local options, and recent changes to Nevada’s energy assistant programs.

Meet the Expert: Maria Wortman-Meshberger

Maria Wortman

Maria Wortman-Meshberger is the chief of employment and support services at the Division of Welfare and Support Services in Nevada. She oversees various programs, including the Energy Assistance Program. This program provides an annual supplemental payment to help low-income individuals in Nevada with home energy expenses for heating and cooling.

With over 20 years of experience in this field, Wortman-Meshberger is dedicated to supporting and assisting individuals in need.

What is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federally funded initiative to reduce the costs associated with home energy bills for low-income households. For the last 40 years, LIHEAP has assisted eligible families through cash grants, which can be used to pay for heating and cooling expenses. The program also offers support during energy crises and provides weatherization services to improve the energy efficiency of homes. It should be noted that LIHEAP does not help with water or sewage bills.

While the program is federally funded, it is administered by each state. In some states, such as Nevada, state funds are pooled into the LIHEAP program to help even more families: “We publish a benefit cap table every year. We help low-income families, which is under 150 percent of the federal poverty level for us,” says Wortman-Meshberger. “Once a family qualifies, we pay their utility vendor directly.”

In 2022, 18,897 families were receiving LIHEAP assistance in Nevada. The minimum yearly benefit was $240, and the maximum was $3,136. The amount a family receives varies based on the number of family members and their specific energy needs. “It’s a one-time benefit, but it’s an annual benefit, so a family can choose how they spend that credit on their account. For example, if they live in Southern Nevada and have high energy costs in the summer, they could use more of the benefit in the summer than in the winter. We provide them with a letter showing them how to divide their benefit by 12 months,” she explains.

Each state has its own application window when low-income households can apply for LIHEAP and their own income requirements. Outside that window, those who need energy assistance should look to local programs or reach out to the LIHEAP office in their state to learn about their options.

Recent Changes in Nevada’s Energy Assistance Programs

All LIHEAP programs have experienced some changes over the years. The one in Nevada has been no exception: “During the pandemic, we didn’t see a dramatic increase in the number of applications because many of our utility vendors had moratoriums on disconnects, and funds were coming into the state for programs helping individuals in general,” says Wortman-Meshberger.

“One change we implemented, though, was to allow electronic signatures for applications, which we didn’t prior to the pandemic. We now also have an email account where individuals can complete an application and submit it electronically.”

“Our energy program has been around for a while,” she adds. “We are working towards improving our program. We are under the division of welfare and supportive services, and our agency also does eligibility for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid. Because of this, we knew how to build an eligibility program, and we’ve tried to streamline and make it as efficient as possible. One of the adjustments we are making for the Energy Assistance Program will not count TANF towards eligibility income, which means more households will qualify.”

Other Energy Assistance Program Options

LIHEAP is not the only energy assistance program available to low-income households. “There are payment assistance programs through some of our utility vendors like Project Reach. Each program has different eligibility requirements,” shares Wortman-Meshberger. “There’s also a program called Safe that helps individuals meet some of their energy needs. There’s an energy share program as well. Some of our counties have some funds as well. They’re not an annual benefit, usually, more of a one-time help where our program does help with an annual benefit, and we can help with past due amounts.”

In addition to getting help paying for utilities, some programs can help households use less energy. “We have a weatherization assistance program through our business and industry department. Households can get help weatherizing to make their home more efficient. Some of our energy providers also have programs to assist with getting more efficient appliances,” says Wortman-Meshberger.

Resources for Energy Assistance for Low-Income Households

Here are some resources for low-income households looking for assistance with their energy bills:

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with a passion for sharing stories of bravery. Her love for world-traveling began when her family moved to Spain when she was six and since then, she has lived overseas extensively, visited six continents, and traveled to over 25 countries. She is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French. When not writing or parenting she can be found kiteboarding, hiking, or cooking.

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