An article in today’s SMN got my attention. It was about the increasing numbers of local residents seeking assistance with their energy bills.
Energy assistance funds trickle down from the federal government to the state’s Energy Assistance Program. Funds are then allocated to local agencies based on a formula that includes county poverty levels and weather zones (the poorer and colder a county is, the greater the allocation). The local agency that allocates funds is the Economic Opportunity Authority for Savannah-Chatham County, Inc. (EOA).
The EOA has people who need energy assistance go and wait in a room for their number to be called. The EOA provides those who are eligible (and able to go and wait in a room for their number to be called) one-time assistance in the form of a check to the utility on their behalf.
Sounds less like an economic opportunity and more like a demoralizing experience yielding temporary relief to long-term problems. Is it better than nothing? Of course. Could we do better? Definitely.
The EOA has a Weatherization Program too. So, what if, instead of writing checks to Georgia Power, the EOA’s energy assistance came in the form of weatherization? Weatherizing (adding insulation, installing more efficient windows, etc.) reduces energy usage –a long-term environmental benefit that also saves people lots of money year after year. Additionally, somebody has to do the weatherization work.
Social safey nets are extremely important, but as funding decreases and need increases it is time to rewrite the formula. We must call for (triple-bottom-line type) sustainable programs that are less about assistance and more about empowerment.