States See More Aid to Help Residents Pay for Heating, But Rising Costs May Exhaust Funds

More states around the country could face a heating aid funding shortage because of rising costs.

The average cost to heat a home in the United States has risen to $972, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEAD). This average is an $84 increase from last year's average, which was $888. Despite programs such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) getting more money, it might be difficult for states to provide heating assistance to their residents due to their income levels.

In order to receive money from LIHEAP, a household's income must be below a certain level, which varies between states. Local agencies receive the money from the state and distribute it to those who qualify, with the money that residents receive potentially making a major difference during the cold winter months. Although lots of money has been put into the fund, NEAD director Mark Wolfe said that the money given to families won't be "enough to cover all the bills," even if "it's certainly much more than we've had."

The money distributed by LIHEAP can be critical for families in rural areas, such as towns in Maine. There is a heavy reliance on expensive oil heating systems in homes in the state, so many families find their heating bills skyrocketing during the winter. According to Maine Equal Justice spokeswoman Alison Weiss, this is just one more expense that residents have to worry about as they're having trouble covering expenses.

"We want to make sure everyone who is qualified for help is getting into the programs that are going to help them this winter," said Weiss.

Evans Notch
Maine is one of many that will be receiving much-needed funds from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is being impacted by rising heating costs. A morning view of Evans Notch covered with fresh snow, December 5, 2021 outside of Stow, Maine. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

LIHEAP, which provides money to some homeowners and renters for heating costs, typically receives $3 to 4 billion and serves 5 million households. The administration added another $4.5 billion via the American Rescue Plan.

But as some parts of the country are expected to have colder winters than normal, it's unclear if that will be enough. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said states such as Montana and Alaska are looking at winters that could be especially bitter

And not everyone who could benefit from LIHEAP money receives it. Some don't even know they qualify, Wolfe said.

"A lot of people who are eligible don't think they are eligible because they think it's just for the very poor," he said. "I think that's what we'd like to do — encourage families to apply even if they think it isn't going to be helpful."

Rising energy costs and lack of assistance can make families choose "between heating and eating," Wolfe said.

Many families have been using their child tax credits to pay energy bills, Wolfe said. That benefit will expire in January unless Congress acts to extend it as part of a stalled $2 trillion social and environmental bill or other legislation.

In Maine, people in need of aid will have access to an extra $55 million this year because of the funding boost, said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership, an organization that includes the LIHEAP stewards in the state.

"Gas prices are certainly high," Hannan said. "Oil and gas."

Raymond Archer was on the verge of losing his home during the cold Maine winter last year when government assistance came to the rescue, and he's prepared for this season to be even more difficult.

Archer, a 50-year-old construction worker who was out of work for nine months during the COVID-19 pandemic, used $1,000 in heating assistance to keep his fuel tank full last year. He said he could need the help again along with many others with rising fuel costs and predictions of a cold winter.

"If it wasn't for them helping me, I don't want to sound drastic, I probably would've given up last year," said Archer, who rents a home in Alfred, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Portland. "Only reason I still have my house is because they helped me."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Virginia Oliver
Virginia Oliver, 101, leaves her home at 5 AM to head with her son to their lobster boat in Rockland, Maine on July 31, 2021. She is one of Maine's many residents that will be affected by the state's freezing cold winter this year. Photo by Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images