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Column: Protect Iowans from losing electricity

Column: Protect Iowans from losing electricity

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In the past twenty months, Iowans have endured a polar vortex, historic flooding, a devastating pandemic and a violent derecho. We have witnessed a fantastic communal spirit of Iowans coming together to help each other deal with the emotional, physical and financial impacts. However, even with an incredible outpouring of private donations, Iowans are struggling to retain access to the building blocks of human dignity, which include safe housing, water and electricity.

Congress must support expanding the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to ensure that people in Iowa who are financially hurting can afford to keep their power connected.

The number of households with past-due utility accounts is an economic emergency and a public health crisis. According to the Iowa Utilities Board, more than 175,000 Iowa residential utility accounts are currently past-due, totaling $29 million in arrearages. One out of every eleven Iowa households can’t pay their power bill this month. Only 18% of the past-due residential utility accounts are households that previously qualified for LIHEAP, meaning a staggering 82% of the households that can’t pay their bill in full didn’t use energy assistance benefits in the past year, but may now need help.

Many hard-working Iowans have seen their jobs disappear, and they have slipped into poverty. The pandemic has created a new segment of people that cannot make a living without additional help, especially those in the hospitality and food service industries.

Iowa’s utility companies have understandably resumed disconnections for non-payment following the lifting of the governor’s moratorium preventing disconnection earlier this spring. Our friends and neighbors face an uncomfortable prospect of living with no power and having no job as fall approaches. These are households with children – people who have worked hard their whole lives – suddenly finding their world turned upside down.

LIHEAP funds are particularly critical for minority communities in Iowa, who have borne the brunt of the pandemic. According to statewide data, African Americans make up just 4% of the state, but 6% of COVID-19 positive cases and Hispanic or Latinos make up only 6% of the state, but 15% of positive cases.

We also must not forget our elderly residents, who cannot live in homes without power. Without electricity, senior citizens cannot turn on their lights at night, charge their phones if they need to make an emergency call, use air conditioning, or access critical medical equipment. This is especially problematic during the pandemic, where at-risk Iowans must stay home to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

LIHEAP directors across the nation are asking Congress to include $4.3 billion in the latest pandemic relief package for LIHEAP. Without increased LIHEAP funding, many Iowans will needlessly suffer. Americans must come together to protect the most vulnerable members of our society until we defeat this terrible plague.

Anyone who is at risk of losing their utility service should contact their local Community Action Agency and their utility company. A household has to have an income at or below 175% of the federal poverty level to qualify for LIHEAP. The pandemic has left many Iowans with earnings far below this level, and current LIHEAP funding will not be enough to keep the power on for our neighbors with winter just a few months away.

Roger Pavey is the executive director of Community Action of Eastern Iowa.

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