Baby, it’s cold outside…and inside, it isn’t much better

Theromstat - Creative CommonsFor many children and families across the nation, snow and cold weather signal joyous memories of missed school days to go sledding and drink hot cocoa. However, for low income and poor families, the cold signals something more serious: the impending challenge to adequately and affordably warm their homes without sacrificing other necessities, such as food.

According to USA Today, heating costs are expected to rise 10.5% from last year. For low-income  families who are already struggling to make ends meet, this presents an agonizing choice: to heat their homes through the long, cold winter or pay for other necessities, including rent and food.

Heating assistance programs, such as LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), play a crucial role in helping families stay healthy. Unfortunately, funding for LIHEAP is decreasing even as more families become eligible for this necessary resource. What is at stake?

Compared with children in families who have not experienced difficulty affording to keep their heat and lights on, children who reside in an energy insecure home where the utility company has threatened to shut off service, actually shut off the heat and lights, the family has experienced unheated or uncooled days, or the family has had to use a cooking stove to heat their home, are:

  • More than twice as likely to live in household that is struggling to afford enough food, also known as food insecurity
  • 79% more likely to be child food insecure (a more severe form of food insecurity where children’s meals have to be made lower quality, smaller or skipped)
  • 34% more likely to be in fair or poor health
  • 22% more likely to have been hospitalized since birth

Families who are unable to pay their utility bills sometimes resort to unsafe options, such as using gas or electric cooking stoves for heating; still others use portable heaters. They worry about the terrible consequences, but feel stuck between a rock and a hard place – living in an unheated home or taking the risk of accidental fires or carbon monoxide poisoning. Far from condemning parents, we need to take action. The remedy is simple – access to, and assistance with, safe heating.

So, what can be done? Increasing funding for LIHEAP would help ease the financial burden of families who are already stretching limited dollars to feed their children without the added stress of heating their homes. And in the private market, ensuring that there are shut-off protections in place in every state – for cold AND for heat, especially in the south. The LIHEAP Action Center’s Campaign for Home Energy Assistance encourages people to share their stories with Congress and the Administration through their website. Letting your state’s representatives know what you think and that you support LIHEAP is also important.

I have written before about how government assistance programs, such as LIHEAP, helped my family and me thrive—indeed survive—when we really needed it most. Getting help with heating oil and gas was a tremendous financial relief to my parents who, despite both being employed, were at times unable to pay high cost utility bills. With a brother who had chronic asthma, which was often cold-induced, and other young siblings in the home, being warm was imperative for our health and well-being.  No child should go to bed or wake up in his/her winter coat, gloves, hat and two pairs of socks to keep warm as I did when our utilities were shut-off. No amount of pretending we were camping outside and no matter how fun it was to see our breath float over our heads could take away the reality that we were cold and shivering. Crowded sleeping on mattresses on the kitchen floor on the coldest evenings in order to get heat from the oven that doubled as a make-do furnace could not replace a safe, efficient heat source or a house that is warm in every room.

Thomas Jefferson once said that “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” If we are serious about these words and, in particular, nurturing our nation’s children—our greatest future asset—we would do well to turn these words into action by supporting programs that can help children spend their energy on growing and learning rather than trying to stay warm.


***The author’s name has been changed to protect privacy.

Photo credit: Megan under Creative Commons