In our state, and across the nation, millions of people are struggling from the pandemic. But as terrible as this condition is, we must be resolute in our efforts to protect the most vulnerable members of our society from the worst impacts of COVID-19.

A component of this responsibility to our fellow Americans is for our leaders in Congress to ensure that our friends, families and neighbors without financial resources do not lose access to their human dignity. This includes safe housing, good nutrition and accessible healthcare.

This is why I asking Alabama Senators Richard Shelby and Doug Jones, to support expanding a federal government program called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to ensure that people in Alabama who are hurting financially, can afford to keep their electricity.

Now, both the Senate and House versions of the pandemic relief packages include $1.5 billion for LIHEAP. This is a good start, and it is absolutely critical that in the negotiations over the next week or so, that Congress does not strip this money out. Without this funding, lives will be put at risk. 

Simply put, we cannot have a situation where millions of people in our state lose access to electricity. This is especially true now, because summer temperatures are on the rise and our local, regional and national economies is cooling off. The result of this severe economic downturn means thousands of families across our state are still out of work from the pandemic. But now, these out of work Alabamans have to not only pay their current utility bills, but all of the ones they couldn’t afford to pay before. If you didn’t have the money to pay your electric bill a few months ago, you probably don’t have it now.

Without additional LIHEAP funds, low-income residents across our state will not be able to afford their electric bills to keep their air conditioning on. Keep in mind, air conditioning is critically important for those with asthma. According to an Alabama Department of Public Health report from 2013: “Black individuals had a higher reported current asthma prevalence rate when compared to white individuals which was statistically significant (9.2 percent vs. 7.7 percent)… in 2010, adults with less than a high school education had reported approximately two times more current asthma than those with at least a college degree (11.6 percent vs. 6.0 percent). Adults with less than a high school education represent a disparate population with respect to educational status.”

In other words, many of those least able to afford their electric bills, are exactly the folks who need access to air-conditioned homes for their safety and wellbeing. 

Also, we must not forget our elderly residents, who cannot live in over-heated houses lacking air conditioning. This is especially true during the pandemic, where at risk Alabamans must stay home to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Air conditioning is literally a matter of survival for many of our neighbors – of all races. 

Finally, the House version of the pandemic relief legislation includes a moratorium on utility shutoffs during the pandemic. But this only delays the inevitable. When the pandemic ends, people are going to have pay perhaps a year or more of bills. This is bad policy. Funding LIHEAP makes sense, because it helps people now, and doesn’t leave them with a future financial burden.

We must understand, that a vast majority of our friends and neighbors now needing access to government assistance, did nothing wrong. They simply worked in industries that have been wrecked by the pandemic and now need help paying their electric bills. This is why I am urging our Senators, and the Congress, to ensure our LIHEAP is adequately funded. Failure to do so, could be a matter of life or death for our neighbors including, children, senior citizens and veterans.

Hon. William Green is a minister, community leader and former city council member in Montgomery. He is a member of the Frederick Douglass Foundation.

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