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March 1, 2010 Monday FIRST EDITION
SECTION: MONEY; Pg. 2B
LENGTH: 558 words
HEADLINE: More U.S. households apply for heat help; High jobless rate boosts requests for energy assistance
BYLINE: Julie Schmit
A record number of U.S. households are applying for help to pay home heating bills with 17 states fielding application requests that are up more than 20% from last year, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association says.
Almost 9 million U.S. households are expected to need help paying winter energy bills. That’s up 15% from the record-setting 7.7 million last year, the association says.
Next year may be even worse, when more than 10 million households are likely to need help, given continued weakness in the economy and the swelling ranks of the longer-term unemployed, says Mark Wolfe, the association’s executive director.
More immediately, Wolfe fears that more households than ever will have power shut off for non-payment. In cold-weather states, such as Illinois and Indiana, winter moratoriums on shut-offs may expire this month or in April.
“There could be a high number of people seeing shut-offs,” Wolfe says.
In fiscal 2009 that ended Sept. 30, 4.3 million households had utilities shut off at one time or another for non-payment, up from 4.1 million in the previous year.
Households are struggling to pay bills despite relatively stable energy prices, Wolfe says. The Department of Energy predicts average household spending of $970 on heating bills for October through March, down 7% from last year.
Some states are seeing far larger numbers of new applications for energy assistance.
In Washington, applications are up 42% from last year, an association survey indicates. Michigan has seen a 38% increase and Nevada, a 34% increase, the survey shows.
“We have people applying who’ve never asked for help before,” says Barbara Anders, director of Michigan’s energy assistance program.
New applicants include those who’ve exhausted unemployment benefits or lost work hours. Michigan, hit hard by auto industry woes in recent years, had an unemployment rate of 14.6% in December, the latest data available. The national unemployment rate fell to 9.7% in January.
Anders expects a big surge in Michigan energy assistance applications later this month and next because tens of thousands of Michigan residents may run out of unemployment benefits.
Nevada, with 13% unemployment, is also “hurting,” says Lori Wilson, Nevada state energy assistance director. “We know so many more people who are without jobs.”
Even states that have brighter employment pictures than the national average are seeing increases in energy assistance applications.
In Colorado, where the unemployment rate in December was 7.5%, applications for energy assistance from Nov. 1 through Feb. 18 are up 18% over last year, says Todd Jorgensen, energy assistance director.
As in other states, the vast majority of new applicants are people who’ve never needed help before, Jorgensen says.
Typically, the energy assistance program serves people who also get other public assistance, such as food stamps, Jorgensen says.
Colorado’s data also indicate that many people are close to losing heat or don’t have any by the time they apply for help. Since November, almost 20% of the applicants were in crisis situations, Jorgensen says.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program received $5.1 billion in federal funding for fiscal 2010 — the same amount as in fiscal 2009. President Obama has requested up to $5.3 billion for fiscal 2011 if certain triggers are met.
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