Heat waves are a major cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were an average of 702 heat-related deaths per year from 2004 to 2018. And last week, hundreds of reported deaths are believed to be related to the heat wave. The National Weather Service reports that one of the best ways to cool off during an excessive heat event, unsurprisingly, is with an air conditioner.
It’s good if you can foot the bill.
But a lot of Americans can’t. As utility companies scramble to meet the growing demand for cooling, some low-income families can’t even afford the cost of an air conditioner, let alone the cost of the electricity needed to power the unit. . This means that the country’s most vulnerable families are at high risk of heat-related illnesses. The federal and state governments need to do more to make sure low-income Americans have access to air conditioning.
When families struggle to pay their energy bills, they are forced to choose between paying to keep their electricity or buying food, medicine or other essentials. The other option is not to turn on their air conditioner, potentially putting them at serious risk to their health. Older Americans who have no other income beyond Social Security are particularly at risk. After paying for rent, food and other basic necessities, they have little money left to keep their homes at a safe temperature.
The little solution the country has now is not great. Low-income Americans can shelter in locally designated cooling centers until temperatures drop, but many shelters have limited capacity due to pandemic regulations. It’s also morally wrong: why should a family lose privacy just because they don’t make enough money to pay their energy bills?
There are better solutions. First, we need to make sure that all low income families have access to cooling in their homes. When families were asked to shelter in place during the pandemic last year, New York City purchased 74,000 air conditioners for low-income seniors. The city has also provided additional funding to help families pay for electricity to run their air conditioners. Local governments across the country should implement similar programs immediately.
Second, Congress must fully fund the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help the most vulnerable afford to keep their homes cool and livable during these historic heat waves. LIHEAP is a federal program designed to help families pay their heating and air conditioning bills and provide basic weatherization services. My organization, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA), represents the state directors of LIHEAP, and we use these funds to help over six million eligible families each year, improving public health outcomes.
As heat waves have increased the need for cooling assistance in recent years, annual funding for LIHEAP has increased from $ 5.1 billion in Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2009 to $ 3.7 billion. dollars in 2021, so the program serves far fewer people than those who qualify. Congress is expected to immediately increase funding for LIHEAP to the fully authorized level of $ 5.1 billion as a first step to help families purchase air conditioners and pay their operating costs.
Heat waves are a public health problem. And no family should be forced to leave their home and move to a cooling center just because they can’t afford air conditioning. Our communities deserve better.