Fewer than a third of low-income Kentuckians eligible for home energy assistance get it

Higher energy costs expected, making this winter’s need more acute

By: - December 7, 2022 5:40 am

Higher energy costs could mean more Kentuckians will need help paying heating bills this winter. (Photo by Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of low-income Kentuckians are eligible for a federal program to help with their heating bills as energy prices are expected to be higher this winter. Yet those on the frontlines of signing up Kentuckians for the program say there are barriers to reaching all who need such assistance. 

Enrollment to receive assistance through LIHEAP in Kentucky goes until Dec. 16. Enrollment to receive LIHEAP benefits during a crisis situation begins in January.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has for decades provided those income-eligible across the country with direct payments, made possible through annual allocated federal funding, to help pay heating bills during the winter. LIHEAP also provides payments for “crisis” situations in the winter, such as when someone is facing a utility disconnection. A third part of the program also provides assistance for home cooling costs in the summer. 

Mark Wolfe, executive director for the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA), said the need for such help comes at a critical time given rising energy prices. 

“It’s going to be a very tough year for lower-income families in Kentucky the next couple of months. Much higher bills than they’ve seen in the past,” Wolfe said.

An analysis in November by NEADA — which represents state directors of LIHEAP programs — found that nationwide heating costs are expected to be at the highest level in ten years. Natural gas costs for heating per home are expected to be 62% higher compared to 2020; a little more than a third of Kentuckians heat their homes from gas provided by utilities, according to a 2020 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

We can’t do too much advertising or funds will run out sooner.

– Susan Dunlap, Cabinet for Health and Family Services

This fall, Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet leaders told lawmakers the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, global weather events and other influences have increased the demand for coal and natural gas, and utilities were expected to pass those higher costs to Kentuckians. 

An estimated 486,000 Kentuckians were eligible for LIHEAP in 2021, according to a federal report. Yet only 29% of those eligible in the state ultimately received financial assistance for heating that year. Ohio and West Virginia also had low percentages of those eligible who were helped, respectively at 19% and 22%.

Wolfe said the billions of federal dollars for LIHEAP are allocated to each state on a first come, first serve basis and the funds in each state eventually run out. 

“When the money runs out, the program’s over,” Wolfe said. “It’s not an entitlement like food stamps … they probably only receive enough money to really help that many families in a meaningful way.” 

Kentucky received $66 million for LIHEAP for the most recent fiscal year going into this winter. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services contracts with the 23 community action agencies to help Kentuckians apply for a small piece of this funding.

Harold Monroe, CEO for the community action agency Pennyrile Allied Community Services in Western Kentucky, said a lack of awareness about the federal program is a barrier to accessing LIHEAP, along with the fact some eligible Kentuckians may feel a stigma for receiving assistance. 

Monroe said senior citizens on fixed incomes, for example, may decide to pay their heating bill but have to cut their budget short for food or medicine as a result. 

“Part of it is, ‘I don’t want people to know I’m struggling,’” Monroe said. “There’s always folks that are left behind because they don’t get and know about some of the products and services that we have.”

U.S. Census Bureau survey data in November showed more than 280,000 Kentucky residents had reduced or forgone buying basic necessities almost every month in order to pay energy bills. 

Monroe said his agency doesn’t have a formal budget to market the availability of LIHEAP benefits and that traditional ways of advertising the program, such as newspapers, have a limited reach. 

Susan Dunlap, a spokesperson for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, in a statement said community action agencies and the cabinet publish and distribute press releases about the program and also post about the program on social media. 

“We can’t do too much advertising or funds will run out sooner,” Dunlap said. 

The Office of Resilience and Community Services in Louisville distributes LIHEAP for the city. The office’s LIHEAP supervisor Brandon O’Neal said each community action agency approaches the handling of the LIHEAP program differently. His office uses a variety of advertising, from radio spots to sending out mailers, to raise awareness about LIHEAP. 

“The need is clearly there,” O’Neal said. “We do everything we can do to get folks to come in.”

Enrollment to receive assistance through LIHEAP in Kentucky goes until Dec. 16. Enrollment to receive LIHEAP benefits during a crisis situation begins in January.


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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.