Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

Evidence Rating  
Expert Opinion
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps households with low incomes meet their home energy needs. LIHEAP prioritizes helping families with at least one member who is a child, an older adult, or an individual with a disability, referred to as ‘vulnerable households,’ and those with the lowest incomes and highest home energy costs, referred to as ‘high burden households’1. Participants are also often at high risk for food insecurity2. LIHEAP is a federal program; states and territories apply for block grants and allocate available funds to approved households using locally designated formulas3. Many LIHEAP programs distribute funds directly to utility companies on behalf of program participants4.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Reduced energy expenditures
  • Improved health outcomes

Evidence of Effectiveness

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a suggested strategy to alleviate the financial burden of energy costs for households considered the most vulnerable and those with the lowest incomes1, 2, 5, 6. Available evidence suggests that receiving LIHEAP benefits is also associated with improvements in children’s growth and health2, 6. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Poor housing conditions associated with energy insecurity include inadequate heating and cooling, mold, and dampness, all of which contribute to negative respiratory and mental health outcomes (e.g., pneumonia, asthma, depression, and poor-quality sleep)7. Lower heating costs are associated with reduced national mortality rates in the winter8, which suggests programs designed to reduce energy insecurity and costs for households with low incomes, such as LIHEAP, may have significant health benefits7, 8, 9. Available evidence suggests that weatherization assistance programs combined with financial support programs such as LIHEAP may contribute to reduced energy use and costs, along with improved health outcomes9.

Local eligibility formulas that include asset tests appear to discourage LIHEAP participation among households with the lowest incomes that could benefit the most from LIHEAP assistance4. Asset tests add an extra administrative hurdle for potential beneficiaries that may be especially difficult for those with lower literacy levels, less English, and smaller social networks, making it more difficult to complete LIHEAP applications4.

Households experiencing energy insecurity usually include children, racial or ethnic minorities, and long-term residents of neighborhoods with homes in poor condition7. Black households experience the most severe energy insecurity, and experts suggest energy insecurity may be a product of racial residential segregation and housing discrimination7, 10. Multi-component programs that include weatherization assistance and energy efficiency investments, in addition to financial support for energy bills, are suggested to address the disproportionate burden of energy insecurity on Black households, to improve housing quality, to increase housing stock values, to increase the potential for wealth accumulation, and to help reduce the racial wealth gap10. Experts also suggest removing asset tests from LIHEAP eligibility formulas to support racial wealth building programs, otherwise assets gained through participation in wealth building programs could disqualify households from receiving LIHEAP funds and inhibit the effectiveness of efforts to reduce racial wealth gaps4.

Researchers recommend increasing LIHEAP funds to ensure all income-eligible households are served1, 2, 4. Programs can also remove or reduce asset tests to redirect those administrative funds to provide additional heating benefits and reduce the annual income eligibility threshold to keep benefits available for households with the lowest incomes4. Adjusting funding allocations to be more equitable among states11 and improving state-level distribution methods may also improve program reach among energy-insecure households1. Experts also suggest building partnerships with local energy utility providers to better meet the needs of residents and connecting residents with financing options for residential energy efficiency improvement projects. With careful implementation, such efforts could improve equity in energy security for racially diverse households with low incomes, in urban and rural areas12.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, additional temporary funding for LIHEAP is available through fiscal year 2022 under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act. States can increase benefits for currently supported households, provide benefits for other eligible households that previous funding levels could not support, and offer benefits to households experiencing new economic challenges from the pandemic13. When this round of funding expires, there is no guarantee all beneficiaries will continue to receive assistance14.

Equity Analysis

Potential to decrease disparities: Suggested by expert opinion

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a suggested strategy to reduce disparities in the financial burden of energy costs and energy security between households with low incomes and those with high incomes1. Across the nation, households that identify as Black, Native American, or Hispanic; have members that are children or older adults; reside in manufactured housing, multi-family homes, older buildings, or homes in poor condition; and rural households experience higher financial energy burdens than others7, 12, 22. Black households experience the most severe energy insecurity, which may be partially due to racial residential segregation and housing discrimination7, 10. Experts suggest programs designed to reduce energy insecurity and costs for households with low incomes, such as LIHEAP, may have significant health benefits7, 8, 9, including reducing disparities in respiratory and mental health outcomes between households with low incomes, with children, or identifying as a racial or ethnic minority, and households with higher incomes, without children, or identifying as white7.

Historical Context

The energy costs to heat and cool a home can consume a large portion of a family’s income, especially during extreme weather events such as blizzards or heat waves. In the 1970s, heating oil prices skyrocketed in the US, and several small energy assistance programs were created to help, primarily in cold weather states. In 1981, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was established by the federal government to assist families across the country. LIHEAP’s allocation formulas, based on population and energy data, expanded funding assistance to warmer weather states for cooling costs as well as continuing to provide heating assistance in the winter23.

In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established with the premise that racial segregation protected property values for white neighborhoods. The FHA’s redlining policies were the most influential factor that entrenched racial residential segregation. Redlining denied people of color access to government-insured mortgages and labeled homes in neighborhoods where people of color lived as uninsurable, thereby guaranteeing that property values in those neighborhoods would be less than those in white neighborhoods24. In the present day, formerly redlined neighborhoods remain more likely to include older homes in poorer condition, meaning homes that have energy inefficient systems; lead paint, soil, or pipes; mold and other allergens; repair needs; challenges with heating and cooling; and more. These neighborhoods are often near sources of pollution, toxins, and other health hazards, such as coal-fired power plants or hazardous waste disposal sites25. Formerly redlined neighborhoods usually contain more paved surfaces than green spaces and tree coverage, creating urban heat islands that can rapidly increase temperatures beyond what older, energy inefficient home heating and cooling systems can handle26. This exacerbates the disproportionately high energy burden for families and individuals with low incomes who already have hard decisions about how to allocate their paychecks27. Older adults are more susceptible to the health effects of extreme changes in heat or cold and experience even larger energy cost burdens if they reside in older homes in formerly redlined neighborhoods. Since property values for homes in formerly redlined neighborhoods remain low, older residents have less equity to use for repairs, energy efficient upgrades, or modifications to make their homes more accessible so they can age in place28. Cities in the Southeast and West experience the greatest disparities in temperature between formerly redlined and non-redlined neighborhoods, exposing vulnerable communities to ever more extreme heat waves due to the effects of climate change29.

Equity Considerations

  • How can LIHEAP program administrators raise awareness about the program, especially among those most in need of energy assistance? What partnerships can LIHEAP program administrators build with community organizations (e.g., senior centers, schools, health centers) and social service agencies to better connect with hard to reach populations?
  • How can the LIHEAP application process be simplified to encourage more eligible households to apply for funding? Does your local LIHEAP process require asset tests, and could that requirement be removed to support a more accessible application? Which organizations can LIHEAP programs partner with to help non-native English speakers or those with limited health literacy navigate the application process?
  • What can programs do to teach participants about energy efficiency and connect them with weatherization assistance programs to make their homes more energy efficient?
  • What other solutions can LIHEAP program administrators implement to address historical drivers of energy insecurity?

Implementation Examples

The US Office of Community Services (OCS), Division of Energy Assistance provided $3.37 billion in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in fiscal year 202215. Funds are awarded to states, territories, and tribes based on the size of the population with low incomes and the climate3. The National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) service helps households requiring aid to connect with their local LIHEAP office16.

As of 2020, the US Department of Energy set most state income thresholds at $25,520 for a single-person residence and $52,400 for a family of four. States can create additional energy assistance programs to benefit households that may not qualify by federal standards; funding may come from mandatory or voluntary contributions by utility companies and individuals17.

The OCS offers additional guidance and resources to address beneficiaries’ needs during extreme cold or heat. As part of extreme weather-related relief, LIHEAP funds can be used for temporary shelter, utility reconnection costs, utility crisis payments, and to purchase generators, fans, or air conditioners18, 19. The OCS also maintains the LIHEAP Clearinghouse and the LIHEAP Data Warehouse, which feature national and state-level data for reports, charts, and tables, along with tutorials and resources on how to use these tools20.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has an interactive database map of state and local energy-efficient policies and programs, which includes information on LIHEAP and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP)21.

Implementation Resources

US DHHS OCS-LIHEAP - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Office of Community Services (OCS): An Office of the Administration for Children & Families. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

LISC-Affordable housing - Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Helping neighbors build communities: Affordable housing.

LIHEAP-State data - Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): State data center.

ACEEE-Smarter House - American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Smarter House: Reduce your impact and home energy breakdown.

ChangeLab-Housing toolkit - ChangeLab Solutions. Preserving, protecting, and expanding affordable housing: A policy toolkit for public health. 2015.

Footnotes

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Murray 2014 - Murray AG, Mills BF. The impact of low-income home energy assistance program participation on household energy insecurity. Contemporary Economic Policy. 2014;32(4):811-825.

2 Frank 2006* - Frank D, Neault NB, Skalicky A, et al. Heat or eat: The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and nutritional and health risks among children less than 3 years of age. Pediatrics. 2006;118(5):1293-1302.

3 US DHHS OCS-LIHEAP - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Office of Community Services (OCS): An Office of the Administration for Children & Families. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

4 Graff 2019* - Graff M, Pirog M. Red tape is not so hot: Asset tests impact participation in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Energy Policy. 2019;129:749-764.

5 NEADA-LIHEAP - National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA). NEADA and public health. The National Energy Assistance Survey and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); 2011.

6 Kuholski 2010* - Kuholski K, Tohn E, Morley R. Healthy energy-efficient housing: Using a one-touch approach to maximize public health, energy, and housing programs and policies. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2010;16(5 Suppl):S68–74.

7 Hernandez 2019* - Hernández D, Siegel E. Energy insecurity and its ill health effects: A community perspective on the energy-health nexus in New York City. Energy Research and Social Science. 2019;47:78-83.

8 NBER-Chirakijja 2019 - Chirakijja J, Jayachandran S, Ong P. Inexpensive heating reduces winter mortality. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2021: Working Paper 25681.

9 Tonn 2021* - Tonn B, Hawkins B, Rose E, Marincic M. Income, housing and health: Poverty in the United States through the prism of residential energy efficiency programs. Energy Research and Social Science. 2021;73:101945.

10 Lewis 2019 - Lewis J, Hernández D, Geronimus AT. Energy efficiency as energy justice: Addressing racial inequities through investments in people and places. Energy Efficiency. 2019;13(3):419-432.

11 Kaiser 2006* - Kaiser MJ, Pulsipher AG. Concerns over the allocation methods employed in the US Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program. Interfaces. 2006;36(4):344-58.

12 ACEEE-Ross 2018 - Ross L, Drehobl A, Stickles B. The high cost of energy in rural America: Household energy burdens and opportunities for energy efficiency. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE); 2018.

13 US DHHS OCS-LIHEAP FY2022 - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Office of Community Services (OCS): An Office of the Administration for Children & Families. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) information memorandum (IM-2022-02) Expenditures FY2022: Clarification of expenditure timeframes. December 2021.

14 Urban-Martin 2020 - Martín C. Families need more help to keep the lights on and the water running during the pandemic. Urban Wire: Housing and Housing Finance. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2020.

15 LIHEAP Clearinghouse-Funding - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Clearinghouse. LIHEAP and WAP funding, FY 2022.

16 LIHEAP Clearinghouse - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Clearinghouse. Welcome to the clearinghouse and featured news.

17 NCSL-Shields 2020 - Shields L. Bolstering federal energy assistance and weatherization with state clean energy programs. National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL); 2020.

18 US DHHS OCS-LIHEAP Winter storm - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Office of Community Services (OCS): An Office of the Administration for Children & Families. LIHEAP DCL-2021-03 LIHEAP flexibilities during winter storm.

19 US DHHS OCS-LIHEAP Heat Stress - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Office of Community Services (OCS): An Office of the Administration for Children & Families. LIHEAP IM-2021-01 Heat stress flexibilities and resources.

20 US DHHS ACF-LIHEAP Data - US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Performance Management. LIHEAP Data Warehouse.

21 ACEEE-Energy policies - American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). State and local policy database of energy efficiency policies and programs.

22 ACEEE-Drehobl 2020 - Drehobl A, Ross L, Ayala R. How high are household energy burdens? An assessment of national and metropolitan energy burden across the United States. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE); 2020.

23 CRS-Perl 2019 - Perl L. The LIHEAP formula. Congressional Research Service (CRS) RL33275; 2019.

24 Kaplan 2007* - Kaplan J, Valls A. Housing discrimination as a basis for Black reparations. Public Affairs Quarterly. 2007;21(3):255-273.

25 Braveman 2022 - Braveman PA, Arkin E, Proctor D, Kauh T, Holm N. Systemic and structural racism: Definitions, examples, health damages, and approaches to dismantling. Health Affairs. 2022;41(2):171-178.

26 NC HFA-Constantine 2020 - Constantine L. Historically redlined neighborhoods experience worse heat. North Carolina Housing Finance Agency (NC HFA); 2020.

27 US DHHS OCS-Howard 2021 - Howard L. LIHEAP American Rescue Plan funding: Racial and economic justice is also equity in energy. The Family Room Blog. Office of Community Services (OCS): An Office of the Administration for Children & Families (ACF), US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS); 2021.

28 Sanders 2020 - Sanders A. Housing: Often overlooked but a critical pillar for older adults. Generations Journal. 2020;44(2).

29 Hoffman 2020 - Hoffman JS, Shandas V, Pendleton N. The effects of historical housing policies on resident exposure to intra-urban heat: A study of 108 US urban areas. Climate. 2020;8(12):1-15.

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