Assistance Programs

Background

Federal utility assistance programs help qualified individuals afford telecommunications and energy services.

Telecommunications assistance programs—the federal Lifeline program provides households with low incomes discounts on eligible services. These include certain wireless, voice and data bundles, and fixed and mobile broadband internet service.

Low-income energy assistance programs—there are two primary federal energy assistance programs.

  • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helps households with low incomes pay for their heating and cooling costs. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in coordination with the states.  
  • The Weatherization Assistance Program helps households with low incomes make their homes more energy-efficient. It also helps these households reduce energy expenditures and improve health and safety. Funds are provided to states and distributed through local organizations. Grants are allocated to states and territories, which in turn provide funds to community-based nonprofits or local government agencies with expertise in delivering program services, with preference given to people over age 60.

Affordable access to clean water sources is essential. However, the federal government has not established a rate-assistance program for water. Several states and municipalities have adopted water rate-assistance programs for customers with low incomes (see also Chapter 6, Low-Income Assistance, Low-Income Assistance Programs: General).

ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS: Policy

Affordability of utilities

In this policy: FederalState

Regulators and lawmakers should ensure that consumers with low incomes can afford their utilities. This includes telecommunications, energy, and water. Utility assistance programs should ensure that all who qualify can receive assistance (see also Chapter 6, Low-Income Assistance, Low-Income Assistance Programs: General).

Policymakers should:

strengthen outreach and education programs to increase participation in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Lifeline, and other energy and telecommunications assistance programs; and
fund research and analysis to determine the scope and depth of residential water affordability problems and the best options to assist households with low incomes that face increasing water rates.

Telecommunications assistance

In this policy: FederalState

Regulators and lawmakers should ensure that financing for Lifeline and any other telecommunications assistance programs is preserved and funded in a competitively neutral manner.

The Federal Communication Commission and state public utility commissions should ensure that Lifeline customers can apply their Lifeline discount to any offering from an eligible telecommunications carrier that includes voice service.

Low-Income Energy Assistance Programs

In this policy: FederalState

Congress and the states should provide enough funding for LIHEAP and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) to ensure that all who qualify can receive assistance. States should supplement LIHEAP and WAP and fund assistance programs for utility bill payment if necessary to ensure that all who qualify receive assistance.   

When energy crises prematurely exhaust funds, Congress should promptly pass supplemental emergency appropriations to replenish LIHEAP.  

Policymakers should:

  • require an annual study to document the energy assistance needs of consumers with low incomes;
  • require a performance-based evaluation of LIHEAP;
  • encourage companies that supply LIHEAP households to plan and coordinate service with the responsible state agency—coordination should reduce the adverse impact of delayed federal funding for other critical state programs and services until all federal funds are available;  
  • create and fully fund statewide electric and natural gas bill-payment assistance programs for residential customers with low incomes;  
  • automatically enroll electric and natural gas customers in state low-income energy assistance programs when they apply for other income-based financial assistance programs; and

prohibit utilities from disconnecting or refusing to reconnect electric or natural gas service to households with low incomes when weather conditions threaten health or safety.