New program encounters many hurdles.

A Detroit resident displays a past-due water bill. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – November 3, 2022

It wasn’t expected to be quick and easy. And it hasn’t been, not with the staffing and technical challenges inherent to starting a new government benefit program.

But the rollout of the first federally funded program to assist low-income households with their water bills is gaining speed, observers say. Still, it is agonizingly slow for a program that was marketed as an emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

States, tribes, and territories have received the $1.1 billion that Congress allocated 20 months ago to the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program, or LIHWAP. Now the challenge is ensuring that the funds reach people in need.

It is difficult to get excited by the numbers shown on the Department of Health and Human Services data dashboard. The data is current through June 30, 2022. Nine states reported that they had not assisted any households. Another nine states reported fewer than a thousand households assisted. Together, these two groups are a political and regional mishmash. They include Democratic-led Nevada and Republican-led Florida. The New England states Maine and New Hampshire and the western states California and Wyoming.

Nationally, just over 303,000 low-income households have received help — meaning they received funds to turn on water that had been shut off, to reduce the amount they owe the water department, or reduce the rates they are charged. Leading the way in total number of households helped are Georgia (31,270), North Carolina (38,454), and Kentucky (38,901).

Mary Watts, the policy branch chief for the Department of Health and Human Services office that oversees LIHWAP, told Circle of Blue that assistance agreements have picked up in the four months since the June report. She said the next reporting period, which extends through September 30, should show more progress. That’s because other federal assistance programs — like rent assistance — are winding down. A heap of federal money became available during the pandemic. States were overwhelmed, Watts said. They prioritized programs with the earliest deadlines to spend the money.

In the 2021 budget bill, for instance, Congress approved $25 billion for rental assistance. Unless granted a 90-day extension, states had until September 30, 2022, to spend the funds. For LIHWAP, states have until December 31, 2023 to spend their funds.

The LIHWAP roll out “has been slower than we would like in a perfect world,” David Bradley, the chief executive officer of the National Community Action Foundation, told Circle of Blue. But he says now the program is on course.

Bradley advocates for community action agencies, the local social services groups that carry out much of the federal government’s anti-poverty work, including energy bill assistance, housing support, and making homes less drafty.

A pillar in the field for more than four decades, Bradley has been closely following LIHWAP. Since July, he’s spoken with state or local officials in roughly two dozen states regarding the program’s rollout. “Standing up a program is difficult,” he said. “This is a mammoth undertaking.” He’s heard several explanations for why.

One is staffing and employee turnover. Agencies did not have the employees to manage a labyrinthine program that channels funds through multiple intermediaries: from federal to state to community action agency to utility. Bradley has heard that New England states have had a particularly tough time with staff turnover at state agencies.

“While LIHWAP was intended to be an emergency program, because an entire infrastructure of networks and relationships had to be built, it has not been able to serve as an emergency program,” Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, the executive director of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation, wrote to Circle of Blue in an email.

Watts also mentioned that inadequate staffing at state agencies slowed the process. She noted another hurdle: the IT systems to monitor and track payments. States had to install new computer software to monitor and track the funds. Households who are helped by LIHWAP, do not receive the money directly. Payments are made to the utilities on their behalf. Utilities then adjust the customer’s account to eliminate or reduce their debt. The bookkeeping systems currently in place might not have been able to follow the money. “We have to make sure the funds going to the water service provider are going on behalf of the right household,” Watts said.

With all of these administrative obstacles, getting help is not always easy for households in need. Kim Genereux knows that to be true.

In February, Genereux, a retired architectural draftsperson in Gloucester, Massachusetts, discovered a “silent leak” in her toilet. Her water bill, usually in the $50 range, soared to $500. The timing couldn’t have been worse. She had recently tapped her emergency fund for dental work. Without the root canals, her dentist told her she would lose so many teeth that she would struggle to chew.

Genereux fixed her teeth, but her finances were in tatters. She applied for food stamps for the first time. And when she found out about LIHWAP, she thought she could get help with her water bill.

It wasn’t easy. She called Action Inc., her local community action agency. Action Inc. delivered unwanted news: cities were not signing on to the program. So Genereux called her city departments. They didn’t know anything about the program. Then she called the mayor’s office. The director of constituent services took up her case. The city had to sign the paperwork to enroll in the program. Gloucester did so.

“There was some drama here — big drama — just to get help to some people,” Genereux said.

Few people in Massachusetts have received help. Through June 30, 2022, state data show that 31 households received assistance.

Genereux believes that the program design is dissuading utilities from signing on. Allocated $19.3 million from LIHWAP, the state allows a maximum benefit of $200 per household, which Genereux thinks is too stingy. Only American Samoa ($85) has a smaller maximum. Most states allow households to receive between $1,000 and $3,000.

The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the program in the state, did not return phone and email messages requesting comment. Action Inc. also did not return phone messages.

Genereux ended up receiving $124 through LIHWAP. That covered about half of her water bill debt, which she had slowly been paying down. She’s happy that her persistence may allow other people in Gloucester in similar financial circumstances to benefit.

“A lot of people who are needy don’t know to ask for help,” she said. “When I get obsessed, I follow through on something. It’s my superpower.”