The Urgent Case for LIHEAP Partnerships
Utilities and local governments can support their most vulnerable families through available federal funding
By Jim Clark, Director of Government Affairs
“We’re all in this together” has been a shared refrain in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone and everything in one way AND another. Local city and county governments and gas and energy utility providers have a mandate to serve their entire community. They can accomplish this most effectively by partnering to distribute federal funding already earmarked for the most vulnerable households they serve.
A recent NPR/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation survey found that in America’s largest cities, at least half of all households — 53 percent in New York City, 56 percent in Los Angeles, 50 percent in Chicago, and 63 percent in Houston — reported facing serious financial problems. The current economic climate is stressing family savings and making it extremely difficult to pay bills.
Minority communities have been affected particularly hard. Pew Research Center surveys have found nearly three-quarters of African American (73%) and Hispanic adults (70%) said they did not have emergency funds to cover three months of expenses; while half of white adults (47%) said the same.
Similarly, local governments are coping with serious financial problems of their own. With the uncertainty of additional aid coming from Washington, local governments are reaching crisis point levels. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that “states and localities had already laid off 1.5 million government workers as a result of COVID-19-related budget woes.” The National League of Cities reported that more than 700 cities have “halted plans to improve roadways, buy new equipment, and complete upgrades to water systems and other critical infrastructure.” Local governments across the nation are having to make seemingly impossible decisions on how to balance their budgets while maintaining adequate service levels.
We are indeed all in this together. As we head into the winter amidst an unprecedented environment, governments and utilities need to consider seeking partnerships that will assist the people they serve. Local governments should seek a renewed relationship with utility companies through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Just recently, the Wall Street Journal warned of the effects that the end of the moratorium of utility disconnections will have across the country. Through a strategic partnership, both government and utilities can leverage each other’s assets and strengths, with an eye towards equity. By sharing this common purpose, governments and utilities can make it easier for people to access the assistance they need, now more than ever.
Now you’re probably asking . . .
What is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)?
LIHEAP is a federal program designed to help qualified households with their energy costs. Not only do LIHEAP dollars go toward home energy bills, but the program can also be used in crisis situations or for weatherization and related minor home repairs.
LIHEAP is a federal block grant, so things such as application process and filing dates may vary by state. LIHEAP received $900M in supplemental FY2020 dollars through the stimulus package passed in March. As the uncertainty of further federal relief increases, local governments are sounding the alarm on the importance of this federal funding. Most states partner with local action agencies to administer the program locally.
As we have been following the program over the years, we’ve noticed low enrollment numbers in states across the country. For instance, here in Illinois only 25% of state income-eligible households are taking advantage of the LIHEAP program. In other words, 3 out of every 4 households that need and are qualified for LIHEAP funding for their energy bills aren’t getting the assistance. Ohio? 19% enrollment. Massachusetts? 19%. Minnesota? 26%.
This tells us two things:
- People simply aren’t aware of the program, and
- The process to apply is onerous at best and treacherous at worst.
If we can make it fast and easy to file our income taxes by app or computer (think TurboTax), why can’t we do the same with LIHEAP? With winter on the horizon, a government-utility partnership centered around the LIHEAP program is a natural fit, with technology acting as the bridge.
How LIHEAP Works
Because we’re nerds, I included a representative flow for a LIHEAP application process while considering how technology providers like CityBase can improve the process and make it easier on the applicant, the state, a partnering local action agency, and the utility company.
A utility customer can’t apply for LIHEAP if they don’t know what LIHEAP is, right? Using single source content can provide consistency in messaging and give customers an easy and reliable way to find important program information (like eligibility criteria). As customers search for information and qualifications for LIHEAP, providing a single source of truth will cut down on both customer confusion and staff error. A customer can access accurate and easy to understand information about LIHEAP and how to apply.
Now that the customer knows about LIHEAP, they’ll need to apply. Some states require an in-person appointment with quite a bit of supporting documentation. Have you seen a LIHEAP application before? So.many.words. Having a universal form people can find and apply for online, or a local action agency can administer on iPads while walking a person through the form, can simplify the process and save time. States, utilities, and partners can direct people to the same universal form to apply for LIHEAP funding in their state.
Review & Approve
Local action agencies that validate and approve applications can use cloud-based case management technology that helps automate business processes, triage requests to the appropriate staff, and provide all staff a single source of truth on all applications. Giving staff the ability to review and approve applications remotely, without ever having to pass a sheet of paper (great for the environment, great for stay-at-home protocols). At the same time, applicants can track the progress of their applications for further assurance. Most importantly, a customer can get their LIHEAP funding faster.
While a local action agency processes the LIHEAP application, payments primarily go directly to the utility provider. Utilities can benefit from a seamless funding process by linking a utility account at the application process point. Specific funds can be applied directly to specific accounts, allowing the utility to apply the funds quickly and correctly.
Some utilities we have spoken with have expressed frustration with applying and reporting funds to customer accounts that have received LIHEAP funding. Having an easy way for both the utility and agency to apply the funds and reconcile can streamline the back end of the LIHEAP process.
LIHEAP as an equity anchor
Utility payments are the most common interaction a person has across the public sector. LIHEAP can become a catalyst for government and utilities to work together to assist their common constituents.
Within this partnership lies the possibility for a better understanding of the people that governments and utilities serve. Offering a platform that is centered around the constituent, not the institution itself, will allow both government and utilities to maintain a proactive posture. In the current climate, we need to better understand who needs assistance and most importantly, when.
The utility payment interaction can tell us a lot of things, the most important is it’s an early indicator of a financial crisis. Instead of waiting for the crisis to manifest, there is a unique opportunity for financial mitigation.
Through partnership, both government and utility can proactively and simultaneously offer assistance (through amnesty programs, payment plans, and other utility assistance programs like LIHEAP ). If the customer qualifies for LIHEAP (or a similar program in terms of eligibility like SNAP), they are likely qualified for other assistance as well, and they could potentially be auto-enrolled into those programs.
Government can seem like an unnavigable behemoth. Oftentimes people simply don’t know what is available to them. In cities across the country there are thousands of assistance programs, each with their own application and process. People lead busy lives and simply don’t have time to search and apply for each program that is available. How much easier would it be to apply just once? The partnership becomes a solid foundation for a meaningful equity and financial justice platform.
The time to act for low-income heating and energy assistance is now
As we head into autumn, we feel a lot of collective uncertainty. For many, there is also an economic uncertainty that is palpable. This sense of urgency allows us to innovate in partnership to assist the people that need it most. LIHEAP can be leveraged by both government and utilities with a technology platform that acts as the bridge. The possibilities to incorporate other assistance programs and create an equity platform are exciting. Government and utilities have partnered before to the benefit of the people they serve. Now is the time to re-engage.