As temps rise, advocates call on Pa. to dial up aid for cooling costs | Tuesday Morning Coffee

Advocates want Pa. to expand its LIHEAP program to help cover summer cooling costs

By: - June 13, 2023 7:13 am
A spiking thermometer against a bright sky and hot sun

(Getty Images/The Arizona Mirror).

With summer practically upon us, and the mercury rising, advocates are calling on Pennsylvania to dial up assistance to low-income residents who need help paying for their cooling costs.

Right now, the state’s low-income heating assistance program, or LIHEAP, which provides qualifying state residents with cash grants to help them cover their heating bills during the colder months, does not run year-round.

In a new report, the advocacy groups Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Esperanza argue that the summer of 2022, which was one of the hottest on record, proves that needs to change.

“Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians depend on LIHEAP every year to afford heating costs between November and early April, but they have nowhere to turn for help with staying safe and cool during the summer’s dangerously high temperatures,” the groups argue, noting that “low-income people in cities and rural areas are hit the hardest by rising temperatures and increasing costs.

“In cities like Philadelphia, urban ‘heat islands’ create hotter conditions in neighborhoods with majority low-income residents and residents of color,” the report’s authors wrote.

Pointing to Pennsylvania’s Climate Impacts Assessment Report, the advocacy groups also note that the “state’s average temperature is projected to increase 5.9 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century.”

Row houses in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

Between November 2022 and April 2023, more than 100 residents in the state’s largest city completed surveys and participated in a community listening session, the advocacy groups said.

The surveys and the session produced a bottom line result: An overwhelming majority of those who participated said they struggled to pay their energy bills during the summer months. Nearly half also said they risked having their power disconnected during the summer.

“Nearly all participants identified a need for year-round availability of LIHEAP as one of the top solutions to this affordability crisis,” the report concluded.

But as the report makes clear, urban-dwellers aren’t the only ones who are at risk because of rising temperatures. Residents of the state’s vast, rural middle also are feeling the heat.

“Farmers are struggling to adapt to changing weather patterns, which can lead to crop failure and financial loss,” the report’s authors wrote. “As a result, climate change can spur a series of crises for rural families that jeopardize their mental health and economic ability to meet their basic needs, including health care.”

And then there are the public health impacts.

“Without sufficient and consistent access to cooling, individuals and their families can experience heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, and other heat-related illnesses,” the report’s authors wrote.

Extreme heat also can “aggravate health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Hotter conditions tend to affect air quality. Sunlight and air pollutants can interact to form more smog, which increases health risks for people with asthma, which disproportionately affects low-income, communities of color.”

(Source: Community Legal Services of Philadelphia/Esperanza)

The report offers several policy prescriptions to help Pennsylvanians who struggle to pay their cooling costs:

  • Pennsylvania “should allocate permanent state supplemental funding to make LIHEAP a year-round program that provides both heating and cooling assistance, provides heater and cooling system repair/replacement, and meets the needs of seniors and disabled people who may be just above income in the current structure.”
  • The state Department of Human Services should “improve language access, outreach, and education to communities with limited English proficiency and streamline enrollment to LIHEAP so all eligible Pennsylvanians can access it;
  • “Provide air conditioners through expanded LIHEAP, and
  • “Examine pathways to increase income limits with a focus on seniors and people with disabilities.”

“None of us can afford climate change, but the costs are even higher for Black and Brown people, rural and urban communities, and low-income families,” the report’s authors concluded. “As temperatures and energy costs continue to rise in Pennsylvania, policymakers must ensure that people can afford to keep their homes comfortable.”


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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.