By Melissa Torgerson, Oregon Housing & Community Services
February 7, 2008
Every Oregonian is impacted by skyrocketing energy costs, however, rising prices influence low income households disproportionately. For example, in 2006, the poorest 68,000 Oregonians (≤ 50% of federal poverty level) were paying over 36% of their monthly budget toward utility bills.
Electricity is not a luxury item that people can simply "choose" not to pay. Paying the utility bill is necessary to maintain basic health and safety standards in terms of heating, cooling, refrigeration and cooking. High energy burdens force low-income households to make tough household budget decisions between utilities and other "discretionary" (yet necessary) items like food or prescriptions.
These everyday choices have serious physical, mental and social side effects for children in particular, including but not limited to illness, school performance and behavioral issues. Recent studies conducted by the Boston Medical Center found that children in low-income households are losing weight during the winter, as their families are eating less to pay their electric bills.
A large number of Oregonians served (~ 60%) are elderly or disabled, and already have very low energy consumption levels. A 2005 study found that over 16% of low-income energy assistance recipients became sick because they were keeping their homes too cold.
In 1999, Senate Bill 1149 passed through the legislature-initiating the Oregon Energy Assistance Program. This legislation required both Pacific Power and Portland General Electric to collect meter fees from ratepayers--totaling $10M annually. Through the statewide Community Action Network, this money is redistributed back to PGE and PC territories to prevent low income households from service disconnection.
However, in 2006-only 20% of the 419,000 income eligible households were able to obtain assistance through the combined OEAP and Federal LIHEAP funding, resulting in long lines and waiting lists at local agencies. Therefore, partners began work to place SB 461 in front of the 2007 Oregon Legislature. This bill would increase the collected amount from $10M to $15M, with allowance for load growth.
The hard work and collaboration of the statewide network paid off, and SB 461 was passed and signed this past summer. It is anticipated that these additional funds will assist approximately 12,500+ more low-income households each year, reducing service disconnection for around 35,000+ PGE and PacificPower households annually.
In January, 2008, increased funding allocations (˜ 51%) will be provided to partners across the state. In addition to simply serving more individuals, members of the Community Action Network have taken their efforts to the next level--re-evaluating the delivery of their program and finding ways to better serve the needs of their local communities. For example:
At NeighborImpact [Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties], the Energy staff will increase their presence within the tri-county through the "Answer Van"--which will allow intake workers to meet with eligible households in the fields or at their place of employment. This service addresses the obstacles many households face when trying to balance employment and intake appointments.
At ACCESS [Jackson County], a new scheduling system will be put into place, making it easier for low income households to schedule appointments and avoid long lines in inclement weather. This computerized database will also more efficiently channel staff resources toward serving households--rather than managing long waiting lists and complex appointment schedules.
At CAO [Washington County], additional space/staff will be placed in multiple satellite offices, making it easier for residents at each end of the county to access energy related appointments and services.
These are just a few of the ways agencies across the state are "thinking outside of the box" to meet the energy needs of low income households in their communities. Do you have questions or comments regarding the Oregon Energy Assistance Program? Please call Oregon Housing and Community Services at 503-986-2134.
Colton, Roger, 2007. "Home Energy Affordability Gap: Oregon."
Child Health Impact Working Group, 2006. "Unhealthy Consequences: Energy Costs and Child Health."
NEADA, 2005. Energy Assistance Survey Data