Opinion: Latest heatwaves are a wake-up call: Government needs to help low-income families

Early heat waves this year should come as no surprise. Across the United States, the frequency of heat waves has increased steadily, from an average of two per year during the 1960s to six per year between 2010 and 2019. The average duration of a heat wave has also increased in major US urban areas. It is now about four days, one day longer than it was in the 1960s.
High temperatures can be fatal. About 658 people die each year from preventable heat-related deaths. Low-income families and minorities who cannot stay calm and live in densely populated areas with less tree cover are particularly at risk.

Federal, state and local governments should view recent heat waves as a wake-up call to develop a long-term strategy to help low-income families adapt to rising temperatures.

We treat cooling the same way we treat heating

Extreme heat is no less dangerous than extreme cold. But today, in many states, landlords are only required to provide their tenants with heat — not cooling.

These are old rules that need updating to reflect rising temperatures.

About 7 million low- and middle-income households (earning less than $40,000) do not use air conditioning equipment, likely because they cannot afford it. That’s why states should require landlords to provide cooling to their tenants.

Legislation is being considered in California, for example, that would do just that. The law is also flexible, allowing officials to set standards that would address the cooling problem in different ways other than air conditioning, using technologies such as insulation, air sealing, increasing shade, and cooling ceilings and fans.

Establishing provisions for closing facilities during the summer

Only 17 states and the District of Columbia have summer protections for facility shutdowns that begin when the temperature reaches a certain threshold, or when a heat alert is in place. And in some cases, the rules provide very limited protection. Nevada, for example, limits shutdowns to days only when the temperature exceeds 105 degrees.

These are, at best, first aid solutions. Countries need stronger lockdown protections during the summer that apply to the entire season.

Provide additional financing

It costs low-income families an average of 8.6% of income to pay for household energy, about three times the average for higher-income families, who spend about 3% of their income on utilities.

Considering rising electricity prices, we at the National Energy Aid Managers Association project that the cost of home energy this summer will rise to about $540, compared to $450 last summer.

In addition, more funding should be made available for the federal government’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides state-specific grants to help low-income families pay their heating and cooling bills. Currently, states use about 85% of the program’s funding to help families pay heating bills. More funding will enable it to provide more powerful cooling assistance and equipment, too.

High temperatures are killing people. Helping low-income families adapt to a hotter world and get the relief they need should be a major component of the country’s climate adaptation strategy.

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