Light Wave

U.S. News

Low-Income Families Struggle to Beat the Heat as Cooling Costs Skyrocket

By Belal Awad · July 23, 2023

In brief…

  • As temperatures continue to soar, low-income families increasingly find themselves unable to contend with skyrocketing cooling expenses.
  • At-risk households now spend an unsustainable 8.6% of their income on home cooling.
  • Advocates deman policy makers to address the impact of climate change and fast-rising cooling costs now.
Blistering heat across the nation may lead to crisis for poor households.  Wikimedia Commons

As the heat crisis intensifies across America, low-income families are grappling with the challenge of staying cool and safe during the sweltering summer months. The urgent need for retrofitting air conditioners in low-income homes has emerged as a national priority. According to Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, the growing crisis demands immediate action. “This is a national problem,” he told CNN. “It’s the south, the west. But increasingly, the mid-Atlantic states… are seeing higher temperatures than in the past. So, where you didn’t see air conditioning used that much, we’re now seeing it used more routinely.”

Unprecedented temperature spikes are triggering more frequent and severe heatwaves across the nation. Many regions are now witnessing an unprecedented surge in demand for air conditioning, particularly among vulnerable groups such as the elderly and people in poor health. “We thought we had more time,” said Wolfe, noting that climate-change reality has outpaced forecasts.

The of cooling homes has grown increasingly daunting for low-income families. According to a Department of Energy study, these households spend an unsustainable 8.6% of their income on home cooling, three times more than higher-income families. The installation of low-energy air conditioning equipment is only part of the solution. As Wolfe explains, “We found over the last few years when states provide families with air conditioning equipment that sometimes they’re afraid to turn it on because they’re afraid of the bill.”

Wolfe advocates a dual approach: 1 - Retrofit homes with insulation, overhead fans, and air conditioning units. 2- Provide financial assistance to help families manage soaring cooling costs. Wolfe’s non-profit group has demanded further funding: “We’re also asking Congress for an additional $3 billion this year to help about 6 million families pay the cost of cooling.” The funding, he said, is vital for protecting low-income families who rely heavily on Social Security income or work minimum wage jobs, leaving them little financial flexibility when prices spike.

Wolfe also pointed to the health risks faced by families who avoid using their air conditioners due to cost concerns. Heat strokes and other heat-related health issues are becoming increasingly common among these at-risk populations. “They’re much more vulnerable to high temperatures,” he said.