Energy program’s renewal promotes self-sufficiency

Kate Birnbryer-White

For Michigan’s poorest families, the cost of heating a home can consume nearly 40 percent of annual income. As that burden recedes in warm weather, lawmakers are working to ensure that some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, including seniors on fixed incomes, will continue to have a well-functioning safety net when winter returns.

The Michigan Energy Assistance Program provided home heating assistance to more than 87,600 low-income households in 2014, its first year of operation. Michigan Community Action, the umbrella for Community Action Agencies that serve every part of Michigan, supports recently introduced legislation that would renew the Michigan Energy Assistance Act for up to three more years.

The 2013 law created MEAP, which provides energy assistance to eligible low-income residents and helps them avoid having their heat cut off in the dead of winter. The program is due to expire on Sept. 30 this year unless the Legislature extends it.

MEAP encourages self-sufficiency. Its statute specifically states that energy assistance services should include helping recipients to budget household expenses to pay their energy expenses. Community Action Agencies also help families secure weatherization, home repair assistance, the home heating credit and other services for long-term solutions to their high energy costs.

Community Action Agencies excel at providing counseling on conserving energy and helping MEAP participants manage their money, which lessens the chances that they will need similar assistance in the future.

The program made the delivery of energy assistance more accessible to citizens through nonprofits like Community Action Agencies. Coordinating energy assistance with other poverty-fighting programs can move families out of crises more quickly. A Michigan household earning less than 50 percent of federal poverty spends as much as 37 percent of annual income on energy bills.

The MEAP does not make utility customers wait until they face shutoff of service before they can seek assistance. The new standard adopted under the MEAP requires only that a customer’s bill be past due. That means customers can ask for help earlier, avoid disconnection fees and usually owe less when they seek assistance.

MCA applauds Michigan legislators who had the foresight to create the MEAP in 2013, and we believe that its track record of success and efficiency warrants the program’s renewal.

Kate Birnbryer-White is executive director of Michigan Community Action.