WASHINGTON—With a colder winter forecast and energy prices higher compared to last year, unpaid utility bills could pile up in New England like the snow outside. So the Biden administration and members of Congress from the region on Friday alerted low-income households to a major boost in federal money to help them keep the heat on.
The American Rescue Plan enacted in March more than doubled the funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to $8 billion this fiscal year. The allotment for Massachusetts residents jumped to $307.5 million, the most in the program’s 40-year history.
“No family should have to choose between paying their energy bills or paying for other necessities such as food or medicine during dangerously cold days,” Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said on a conference call with reporters. “Too many families lose sleep because they’re thinking about what they’re going to do, how they’re going to survive, when the utilities get shut off.”
This increased funding for the program’s grants to help low-income families pay their energy bills comes as fuel costs have risen and more people need financial assistance due to the pandemic. The price of natural gas is forecast to be up 30 percent compared to last year, and the average heating oil bill for a household nationwide is expected to increase by about $500, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
On top of that, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting that temperatures this winter in Massachusetts will be about 5 percent colder than last year.
“Massachusetts is one of those states where our high cost of living really necessitates this investment in American families and lowering their costs to help them get back on their feet and stay warm and secure this winter,” said Representative Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat.
Action for Boston Community Development, an anti-poverty organization, said it had received more than 16,000 applications for grants from the program in just the past two months, compared to more than 21,000 applications last year.
Eligibility is determined by the number of people in the household, their gross income, the type of energy, and the type of housing. Eligible recipients can receive up to $1,650 to pay energy bills, an increase of about $400 from last year’s maximum benefit. Payments are made from the government directly to the utility or a fuel delivery provider, unless the cost of heating is included in the recipient’s rent.
Households must apply for aid each year. First-time applicants have previously needed to apply in person at a local fuel assistance agency, but the face-to-face requirement has been waived due to the pandemic. Applications can now be filled out online. Applications will be mailed to previously participating households.
The American Rescue Plan also included an additional $21.5 billion for the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program, which can help households with unpaid utility bills, the White House said.
In addition to the increased energy assistance, the White House said it has successfully pushed 14 utility companies to avoid shutting off service for unpaid bills and help families get the federal aid. Among the companies are Eversource and National Grid, which provide electricity and gas to many Massachusetts homes. They committed to identify eligible recipients of energy assistance using their customer data, refer them to the program, and delay shutting off service for unpaid bills once notified that a customer has applied.
“We are much better prepared as a country to help people, families who without this help may have felt that much more pressed and that much more of a struggle to meet their winter home heating cost,” said Gene Sperling, the White House American Rescue Plan coordinator.
Haley Fuller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.