Erica Dunning is proud of her tidy house, built by Habitat for Humanity in a quiet Chalkville neighborhood, and her job working for Jefferson County. But she’s not too proud to admit that, once upon a time, she needed help to make ends meet.
That help particularly made it possible for Dunning to pay her electric bills, which could become out of reach at certain times a year. And that’s where the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – known by the acronym LIHEAP – came in.
August, which is typically expected in Alabama to be the hottest month of any year, was LIHEAP Awareness month, the month set aside to demonstrate the value of the program. But you don’t have to convince Dunning, who used the program when she was down on her luck and not working, she said.
“It just helps you get over that slump,” she said. “Now I am employed by Jefferson County… but I have used the program to get over that slump. And it’s just good to know you’ve got help.”
Dunning, who has two children, also has a house that uses electricity for both heating and cooling, as opposed to using natural gas in the winter, as many do.
“Without power, how do you get your kids ready for school?” she said.
While shortfalls can happen any time of the year, Dunning said it was particularly hard around Christmas. “You don’t want to disappoint your kids at the time, so you just try and be balanced and make sure they have at least something for Christmas.”
LIHEAP helped make that possible, she said.
This year’s awareness month arrived with the program under threat from the Trump administration, which has proposed eliminating what many low-income residents have come to depend on to keep their air conditioning going in the summer and heat on during the winter.
Thousands of people in Jefferson County depend on LIHEAP, which is administered by the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity. Some 5,000 families are served each summer and another 5,000 each winter, said Dorothy Crosby, who works in the Energy Assistance arm of JCCEO.
But where those residents see a lifeline, the Trump administration sees a drain on federal resources subject to fraud.
“The Budget proposes to eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in order to reduce the size and scope of the Federal Government, and better target resources within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families,” the Trump administration wrote in its budget proposal for 2019.
“LIHEAP is a Federal program that has been known to have sizeable fraud and abuse, leading to program integrity concerns. Specifically, a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study concluded that the program lacked proper oversight, which resulted in a significant number of improper payments. In particular, the report highlighted a number of incidents in which program funds were distributed to deceased or incarcerated individuals. In addition, the report determined that LIHEAP application processors did little to prevent awards from being provided to individuals with fake addresses and fake energy bills. Since the report, States have taken steps to work toward improving the verification of identify and income.
“Perhaps more notably, the Budget recognizes the program is no longer a necessity as States have adopted their own policies to protect constituents against energy concerns.”
In Jefferson County
Local LIHEAP advocates take issue with both the notion that it’s been subject to significant fraud and to the contention that there is a state program that takes its place to “protect constituents against energy concerns.”
Getting rid of the program would hurt Jefferson County residents, the JCCEO’s Crosby said.
“Just Jefferson County alone receives right at $4 million to provide services to the constituents or to the community in Jefferson County,” she said. “That’s just in the LIHEAP funds. I’m not including money we get from the corporations to assist – like Spire and Alabama Power. So those funds are certainly a very small percentage compared to the $4 million we receive from the feds to provide services under the LIHEAP program.”
Crosby said eliminating the LIHEAP program would be a hard blow to a county where nearly 20 percent live in poverty. “You’re talking about putting people out of work, you’re talking about not being able to provide these services because our services go directly to the vendor, so we are providing our customers and their customers with restorational services making sure they’re in a safe environment. We also are maintaining their services so that they won’t be in a desperate situation or a crisis,” she said.
As early as July, Crosby said, people had been calling JCCEO for LIHEAP help getting their heat back on for the winter. “But we can’t provide that service until we receive funding. So we don’t know, and based on what everybody’s hearing with the zero appropriation possible, … it’s just a wait and see kind of game,” she said.
Those who administer LIHEAP are fighting to keep it in place, Crosby said.
“We have sent letters to our congressional representatives requesting that they support LIHEAP and the impact it makes on the families we serve,” she said.
“There are people and lobbyists that are working on our behalf to try to make sure that Congress hears the stories and could be willing and receptive to approving a continuing resolution, which we have had for many years, or maybe going on and granting the dollars for the program.”
“You have to always stay on top of it,” she said. “That’s why they have several events during the year to keep Congress abreast of … why the need is so great to continue this service and they have a day when they go on the Hill and they talk with our local representatives, and then they have this LIHEAP Awareness Month where we try to make certain that everybody knows what it does and how important it is to keep.”
The agency submits the plea to Congress electronically – through a form already prepared for this eventuality. “That’s the way we have done it for a few years now,” she said. LIHEAP has been on the chopping block before.
Federal dollars for the LIHEAP program are administered through states, which in turn distribute it through local agencies like JCCEO. Those funds come through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Crosby said. Willie Whitehead, the LIHEAP unit chief in ADECA’s Energy Division, said that, in the 2018 fiscal year, LIHEAP funds in the state totaled $51,264,890.
Whitehead, in an email response, said the funds were necessary in Alabama. “LIHEAP targets vulnerable households, elderly, disabled and small children. Over 70 percent of the households assisted are below 100 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines which is $24,600 for a family of 4,” he noted.
“Approximately 80 percent of the households assisted include a family member who is elderly, disabled or a small child, so LIHEAP is vital for these households. Many would be without power or gas, which would put their health and safety at risk. The assistance also enables many working poor households to pay for medicine and food with funds they would use for utilities.”
When it comes to the White House contention that LIHEAP is riddled with fraud, state and Jefferson County officials have different takes on that. Whitehead said, “We have no documented LIHEAP fraud as far back as I can remember. During our monitoring reviews, we run across an occasional improper LIHEAP award. These are normally less than $500 and are repaid to the program by the client or the administering agency from non-federal, non-state funds.”
Crosby at the JCCEO agrees that the amount of successful fraud involving LIHEAP funds is small. But she said, people do try to game the system in various ways.
“We have found it, caught it, denied the customer, sent them a letter,” Crosby said. “And when we uncover it, we have to act on it. We can’t just let it go dormant. We have to really let the customer know ‘You’ve done wrong. We can’t help you. Then we have to not allow them those services for a period of time.
“You can’t come in here and get your mama’s bill paid and she’s been dead for 6 months.”
People have tried to commit fraud against the program in a number of ways, Crosby said. Some have fabricated bills to document their supposed need. Others have submitted applications for energy assistance under false names. In most cases, safeguards built into the program catch them, Crosby said.
But, she emphasized that the incidents of attempted fraud are “very, very minor. Maybe less than 10 or less than five a year. And it’s not every year. Some years you won’t see any of that,” she said. “There’s a lot of technical stuff that we have to do as an agency to be sure we do our due diligence in providing these services because we are charged to manage this money in a proper manner. You have to take it very seriously.”
What Could the State Do Without LIHEAP Funds?
While the White House budget proposal contends that state programs have arisen in many places to take care of the kind of needs LIHEAP addresses, Alabama officials disagree.
“Alabama’s LIHEAP is 100 percent federally funded,” Whitehead said. “No state funds are currently available to assist low-income households with utility costs. There are utility assistance programs such as the Project SHARE, the Alabama Business Charitable Trust Fund and DollarHelp which supplement the LIHEAP due to the limited funding of these programs.”
Despite the Trump Administration’s assertions, local and state officials maintain that LIHEAP works as intended.
“LIHEAP is important to thousands of low-income households in our state, especially our vulnerable households who would be at risk without assistance during the cold of winter and the extreme heat of our summers,” Whitehead said.
Erica Dunning may not need LIHEAP anymore herself. But she still believes the program should continue when it’s needed. “It has really helped me,” she said.
This is the fourth of BirminghamWatch’s Trump’s Budget Wish List series, detailing programs that President Donald Trump proposes cutting and the effect these choices could have in Alabama.