Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump referred to climate change as a “hoax.” And now, along with 180 members of Congress who question the legitimacy of climate change or humans’ contributions to it, he is undercutting progress toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to warming our planet. At the same time, he is pursuing budget cuts that will make climate change even worse while hurting the families struggling most with its effects. Such cuts include eliminating the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children pay for their utility bills.
Among the more egregious climate-related actions President Trump has taken since he assumed office is an executive order that rolled back the most significant standards to limit carbon pollution from the power and transportation sectors. It is difficult to overstate how harmful Trump’s revocation of these policies will be to Americans’ health and how it will damage the United States’ standing as a leader in the fight against climate change.
But it is President Trump’s proposed budget that will most immediately harm Americans, particularly those living on the brink. The budget proposal cuts one-third of the funding to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which grants funding to states for drinking water and cleanup of toxic sites. It also eliminates programs aimed at helping families meet expenses brought on by the effects of climate change, such as record-breaking temperatures. Through the budget, President Trump has proposed eliminating LIHEAP, which helps low-income households pay for their heating and cooling costs. With an uptick in the number of days with extreme temperatures throughout the year, these households need that assistance more than ever.
LIHEAP is the first line of defense for low-income families
The need for programs such as LIHEAP has never been more acute. Globally, 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded. In the United States, it was the second-warmest year on record, warmer by nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit than the 20th-century average. All 50 states recorded average temperatures that ranked within the top-seven highest in recorded history. Winter months also brought extreme weather events, including a polar vortex over much of the contiguous United States last December.
LIHEAP serves as the first line of defense for low-income families struggling in the face of extreme temperatures. Established in 1981, LIHEAP provides energy assistance to households that fall below either 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines—$30,630 for a family of three—or below 60 percent of state median income. In 2016, LIHEAP received a modest $3.37 billion from the federal government. It serves about 6.8 million households each year—just 20 percent of all eligible families. Disproportionately represented among recipients are those most vulnerable to extreme temperatures—very young children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. A 2011 federally-funded survey of LIHEAP recipients found that a full 89 percent of recipient households had at least one of these groups represented.
What’s more, 72 percent of LIHEAP households included a member with serious medical conditions, and extreme temperatures at home can worsen health outcomes—and can even be a death sentence. If a residence is too cold, for example, it can lead to respiratory problems or even hypothermia, to which children, the elderly, and people with mental illnesses are particularly vulnerable. And summer heat can exacerbate medical conditions like cardiovascular disease, lead to hospitalization for conditions such as kidney disease and diabetes, or cause deadly dehydration. That’s not to mention the high levels of stress associated with the constant fear of having your energy shut off because you cannot afford to pay for it.
Although LIHEAP provides a modest benefit of just a few hundred dollars on average, it eases the strain on families’ budgets. A 2016 study found that lower-income households spend an average of 7.2 percent of their annual income on energy bills, compared with just 2.3 percent spent by wealthier households. This disparity exists in part because low-income residences are often ill-equipped to sustain acceptable temperature levels, due to substandard infrastructure, poor ventilation, or inefficient appliances. These households spend a median $1,692 annually on utilities—a price so steep that families routinely have to make untenable decisions between food, medications, and other essentials just to sustain moderate temperatures at home. Worse, some households even resort to unsafe and potentially lethal practices—such as heating their homes overnight with stove burners—because they cannot afford their utility bills.
Researchers predict that if President Trump eliminates LIHEAP, the number of households able to afford their energy bills will drop 17 percent. What’s more, more than 200,000 individuals will be plunged into poverty, and more than 50,000 will fall into deep poverty. And without federal funds to finance LIHEAP, chances are slim that states will continue the program. About half of states are projected to face budget shortfalls in 2018. Among them are states with brutally cold winters such as Alaska and Connecticut, whose deficits hover around $1 billion each, as well as states like Louisiana and Oklahoma, which are home to oppressively hot summers. In many cases, the consequences might be fatal.
President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress who doubt the human causes of climate change—despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary—pose a double threat to families in need. As they pursue an agenda that will undermine the nation’s progress to combat climate change, Trump’s proposed budget cuts threaten to pull the rug out from under the families struggling the most with climate change’s effects. If LIHEAP is eliminated, millions of people will lose the heating and cooling assistance that helps them stay safe and healthy in the face of ever-more extreme weather.
Eliza Schultz is the research assistant for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Erin Auel is a research associate for the Energy and Environment Policy team at the Center.