The chill of winter can be offset with the pleasure of curling up inside a warm home. Turning on the heat and settling into your favorite chair to open a new book or watch a movie feels even better when snow falls or rain patters against the windows. Unfortunately, that’s not a realistic option for every household. Some families have to choose between paying high winter utility bills and buying groceries or gas for their cars. The necessity of food and transportation often wins.
Fortunately, there are assistance programs that could help individuals and families in need. One such program, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), helps low-income households with heating or cooling costs, during an energy-related crisis (such as a shutoff notice from your utility) and with weatherization improvements.
If you, a parent or a friend are struggling to make ends meet this winter, LIHEAP and similar programs might be able to help keep your home warm.
Apply as soon as you can if you think you’ll need assistance. The federal government provides the funding for LIHEAP, but the programs are run at the state level. The money gets distributed on a first-come-first-served basis and states give priority to households with children, elderly or disabled members. Often the largest benefits are awarded to the homes with the most need.
States open their winter applications at different times, and you should apply for LIHEAP right away if you think you’ll have trouble paying for heating.
LIHEAP won’t cover your entire utility bill, but it can help keep your home warm. LIHEAP’s heating benefit is only intended to help you pay to heat your home. For example, if you’re heating unit runs on gas, the program will contribute towards your gas bill, but not your electricity bill. LIHEAP won’t pay for sewer bills and will only help with water bills during warm months if your home has an air conditioner unit that relies on water.
While you might only be able to receive a benefit once every 12 months, it can make a big difference for your finances. For the fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available, the average LIHEAP benefit for heating and crisis fuel assistance costs was $366. Over 5.7 million households received heating assistance that year and it offset an average 45.9 percent of recipients’ annual heating costs.
Qualifying for LIHEAP assistance. States, tribes and territories control aspects of the LIHEAP within their area. As a result, the services, qualifications, aid limits and application process can vary depending on where you live.
However, federal statutes set the maximum income eligibility guidelines for LIHEAP. To be eligible, applicants’ income must be no greater than 150 percent of the poverty level according to federal poverty guidelines. Alternatively, in states where the 60 percent of a state’s median income is greater than 150 percent of the poverty line, the 60-percent amount is used. States can also have stricter income requirements than the federal statutes mandate. You can review each state’s income eligibility for the fiscal year 2017 on this table.
The grantees, the state or local organizations that distribute funds to households, also consider applicants’ utility costs, family size and location. Both renters and homeowners could be eligible for LIHEAP assistance, but you might not qualify if you have subsidized housing.
Grantees can choose to automatically qualify households that receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income and some types of veteran’s benefits. However, even if you’ll automatically qualify you may need to complete an application to receive a benefit.
Being qualified doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get assistance. Each state receives a set amount of funds for the year, and on average only 20 percent of qualified household receive benefits.
How to apply for LIHEAP. Often you’ll apply for LIHEAP at a Community Action Agency (CAA), local non-profit organizations that help administer federal, state and local grant programs. Some states let you complete the application online, otherwise you may need to mail, fax or hand in a paper application.
The Office of Community Service’s website has contact information for each state and territory, including a link to a website where you’ll find state-specific eligibility guidelines and program information.
As part of the application process, you may need to share identifying and financial information, including:
- Recent utility bills.
- Recent pay stubs, or a profit-and-loss statement if you’re self-employed.
- Documentation for other income, such as Social Security benefits.
- A lease or property tax bill as proof of your address.
- Your Social Security number.
- A list of people living in your home, their relation to you, dates of birth and incomes.
- A copy of a utility termination notice, if you received one.
You’ll also have to share which heating bill you want help with and your energy provider’s information.
If you’re having trouble with your state’s website, or want to help someone who isn’t computer savvy, you can call the LIHEAP Clearinghouse’s National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) at 1-866-674-6327 (TTY: 1-866-367-6228).
Utilities, state, local and non-profit organizations might provide more assistance. LIHEAP isn’t the only program that offers heating assistance, and some other programs offer help with non-heating utility payments as well.
Benefits.gov has a search tool you can use to browse programs by state, agency or category, including energy assistance. You can also use the benefit finder tool to see which assistance programs you might qualify for. Continue your search by looking for state-based programs and trying to work with your utility company. Some utilities have payment plans that could lower your monthly payments or assistance programs that offer cash or credits to eligible customers. Local and national charitable organizations might be another source for aid.
Bottom line: When the temperature drops, heating costs can quickly rise. If you or someone you know is having trouble keeping the heat on, LIHEAP could help provide much-needed aid. Priority is given to households with children, seniors or disabled members, but you will want to apply early because the state’s funds could run out.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.