National Energy Assistance Survey

Access to affordable home energy is a matter of health and safety: homes that are too cold in winter or hot in summer put children at risk for respiratory diseases like asthma and burn injuries or carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of candles for light or stoves for heat, and can land seniors in the hospital with heat exhaustion and the worsening of diabetes and other chronic ailments. Financial stresses on households facing high home energy bills mean that some will go without food or a full dose of medically necessary prescription medicines.

The LIHEAP benefit can save lives, especially in summertime, and protects against the health threats posed by high home energy bills. NEADA’s 2010 and 2011 national telephone sample surveys of LIHEAP households documented a wide range of adverse outcomes tied to energy insecurity, as well as the benefit of LIHEAP for low- and moderate-income households.

The National Energy Assistance Survey

The 2011 National Energy Assistance Survey (NEA) documented changes in the affordability of energy bills, the need for LIHEAP, and the choices that low-income households make when faced with unaffordable energy bills. In order to obtain a comprehensive demographic picture of LIHEAP recipients and the characteristics of those who are helped as well as who would be hurt by the program cuts, NEADA conducted a survey of approximately 1,800 households that received LIHEAP benefits in FY 2011.

The results of the 2011 NEA Survey show that LIHEAP households are among the vulnerable in the country. In fact, nearly 90 percent of LIHEAP recipient households have at least one vulnerable member—defined as someone age 60 or older, age 18 or younger, or disabled.

Additional findings underscore the fact that, for these households, a loss of heat or electricity in the winter could have serious health and safety implications.

LIHEAP Households Are Among the Most Vulnerable in the Country

  • 40 percent have someone age 60 or older
  • 72 percent have a family member with a serious medical condition
  • 26 percent use medical equipment that requires electricity
  • 37 percent went without medical or dental care
  • 34 percent did not fill a prescription or took less than their full dose of prescribed medication
  • 19 percent became sick because the home was too cold
  • 85 percent of people with a medical condition are seniors.

Other key facts reported by the study:

  • 45% reported that their energy bills were more than $2,000 in the past year.
  • 35% were unemployed at some point during the year.
  • 52% said that energy bills were more difficult to pay than in the previous year and 48% of those who said that it was more difficult to pay their energy bills reported that the main reason was their financial situation.
  • LIHEAP benefits decreased since the previous year due to the smaller appropriation in FY 2011. Mean heating benefits were $429 in FY 2011, compared to $483 in FY 2009.

Many LIHEAP recipients were unable to pay their energy bills. 49% skipped paying or paid less than their entire home energy bill, 37% received a notice or threat to disconnect or discontinue their electricity or home heating fuel, 11% had their electric or natural gas service shut off in the past year due to nonpayment, 24% were unable to use their main source of heat in the past year because their fuel was shut off, they could not pay for fuel delivery, or their heating system was broken and they could not afford to fix it and 17% were unable to use their air conditioner in the past year because their electricity was shut off or their air conditioner was broken and they could not afford to fix it.

In fact, LIHEAP recipients reported that the funding was more essential this year than in the past: 93 percent of recipients reported that LIHEAP funding was very important in helping them keep the heat on in the winter and cooling in the summer up from 90 percent in 2008 and 74 percent in 2003. The additional LIHEAP funding also increased the odds that a household could work out a payment plan with their local utility. The number of households that reported this increased from 54 percent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2009.

LIHEAP benefits increased since the previous year due to the greater appropriation in FY 2009. About 21 percent received total LIHEAP benefits of more than $750 in FY 2009, compared to 12 percent in FY 2008. The pre-LIHEAP energy burden averaged 16 percent and post-LIHEAP energy burden averaged 11 percent for these households, compared to 7 percent for all households in the U.S. and 4 percent for higher income households in the U.S.

LIHEAP recipient households are likely to be vulnerable to temperature extremes. They are likely to have seniors, disabled members, or children in the home. More than 90 percent of LIHEAP households had at least one of these vulnerable household members. The study also showed that these households face many challenges in addition to their energy bills, including unemployment, unhealthy home conditions, and medical issues.

LIHEAP recipients reported that they faced high energy costs. Over one third of the respondents reported energy costs over $2,000 in the past year and 35 percent said that their energy bills had increased over the previous year.

Households reported that they took several actions to make ends meet, including closing off part of the home and leaving the home for part of the day. Some of the actions taken by these households were unsafe and could lead to injury or illness, such as keeping the home at a temperature that was unsafe or unhealthy or using the kitchen stove or oven to provide heat.

Many of the LIHEAP recipients faced significant medical and health problems in the past five years, partly as a result of high energy costs. Nearly one third reported that they went without food, over 40 percent sacrificed medical care, and one quarter had someone in the home become sick because the home was too cold.

Households reported enormous challenges despite the fact that they received LIHEAP. However, they reported that LIHEAP was extremely important. About 64 percent reported that they would have kept their home at unsafe or unhealthy temperatures and/or had their electricity or home heating fuel discontinued if it had not been for LIHEAP. Almost 98 percent said that LIHEAP was very or somewhat important in helping them to meet their needs. In addition, 53 percent of those who did not have their electricity or home heating fuel discontinued said that they would have if it had not been for LIHEAP.

The following provides links to surveys conducted in the last several years:

Other Studies on Energy Burden and Public Health