Households Still Have Not Received Aid from New Federal Water Bill Assistance Program
Last December, spurred by household financial distress due to the pandemic, Congress authorized the first-ever federal program to help low-income residents pay overdue water bills. Lawmakers provided $638 million to set up the program and assist households with their water debt.
Four months later, in March 2021, federal lawmakers doubled down on the approach. They added $500 million to the pot, an addition that brought total funding to more than $1.1 billion for the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program, or LIHWAP, as it came to be called.
Today, households are still waiting. No LIHWAP funding has been delivered to customers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the program, told Circle of Blue it has distributed $855 million to states. But states are merely an intermediary. Once they have the funds, states then work with community agencies or individual utilities to identify eligible households and get them to apply for aid. Approved households will see a credit on their utility bill. That has not yet happened.
Those versed in the workings of federal benefits programs and water utility operations knew that starting a new initiative, even one modeled after a federal aid program for energy bills, would not be a quick and simple task.
Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, executive director of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation, a research group, identified many of the hurdles to overcome. Neither federal agencies nor states nor utilities had much data on the size of customer water debts or which households were in financial distress. Those information gaps left them without the basis for understanding who needed the money. What’s more, new relationships between government and local agencies had to be formed.