Pandemic Water Assistance Program Not Expected to Be Renewed in Congressional Budget Negotiations

Pandemic Water Assistance Program Not Expected to Be Renewed in Congressional Budget Negotiations
The Orange County Water District plant in Fountain Valley, Calif., on April 27, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Matt McGregor

A water assistance initiative that began in December 2020 is set to expire on Sept. 30.

Congress appropriated $638 million in funding for the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, or LIHWAP, under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

In addition, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 appropriated $500 million in funds to the program.

The program is managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help with water and wastewater billing to low-income households struggling to pay their bills because of the economic hardships of the pandemic.

Thus far, LIHWAP has doled out approximately $1.1 billion to states that then distribute the funds to water utility departments.

Those departments use those funds to help people who make 150 percent of the federal poverty line, or $37,290 for a family of three, according to Route Fifty.

By Sept. 30, 2022, the program had restored 30,000 households that had their water disconnected and maintained service for 228,000 homes.

The report pointed to concerns over the end of the program, considering the 4.6 percent increase in the poverty rate from 7.8 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022.

“This increase can be attributed to key changes in federal tax policy, including the expiration of temporary expansions to the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as well as the end of pandemic-era stimulus payments,” the Census Bureau stated. “This is the first increase in the overall SPM poverty rate since 2010.”

Nathan Gardner-Andrews, the chief advocacy officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, told Route Fifty that for households dependent on the government assistance programs, it could be a blow to the budget.

Mr. Gardner-Andrews said he doesn’t expect Congress to renew the program as it approaches its deadline to come up with a spending agreement by the end of the month.

Looming Shutdown

If the U.S. government can’t agree on spending, it could shut down without a budget in place.
Despite the potential termination of government assistance programs for its own citizens, the Department of Defense has stated that Operation Atlantic Resolve, the operation to train and supply the Ukrainian military, will continue.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spoke to reporters on the looming shutdown, stating that people who have been holding off on agreeing will find common ground and move forward in the final hours before the deadline on Sept. 30.

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) told MSNBC that the disagreements have produced “chaos.”

“Ordinary people scratch their heads watching what’s unfolding in D.C.,” Mr. Warnock said. “They are trying to figure out how to take care of their families, how to advance their prosperity and their wellbeing, and I think this chaos that we’re witnessing right now—it’s just one example of what happens when politicians center the politics rather than the people. These people have clearly decided that their short-term political gains are best served by a government shutdown.”

To prevent the country from defaulting on its debt, Mr. McCarthy and President Joe Biden entered a deal to continue 2022 spending levels, which, according to the report, means discontinuing LIHWAP.

As House Republicans push to reduce federal spending, Senate Democrats propose extra funding.

Though the water assistance funding will end, HHS has said that states will be able to rely on remaining funding.

'Struggling to Pay Their Bills'

Susan Saffery, the director of government relations and legislative affairs for Seattle Public Utilities, told Route Fifty that the cessation will create problems.

“If you are making 150% of the federal poverty level and you’re living in the Seattle area with our cost of living, then having somebody help pay down your water utility bill is a huge deal,” Ms. Saffery said. “We won’t have the money to fill that gap. So despite our really good utility discount program and our emergency assistance, we will still have people struggling to pay their bills.”

Mae Stevens, chief executive officer for the American Business Water Coalition, told Route Fifty that keeping the water assistance active would benefit the economy.

“If people are having trouble paying their water bills, then they’re not spending money on groceries,” Ms. Stevens said. “They’re not able to spend money on other things in the local community.”

Jay Bernas, the general manager for Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), praised the program’s assistance during a time when rates were continually going up.

HRSD provides wastewater services to 1.9 million residents in the Virginia Hampton Roads region.

Mr. Bernas told Route Fifty that HRSD will continue to allow customers to go on payment plans to prevent disconnection; however, Virginia law restricts it from lowering rates.

“To be able to say, ‘Hey, there's this program out there that you might qualify for that can help you with your bill,’ it was such a feel-good thing,” he said. “We were able to have a solution for them, instead of saying: ‘There's nothing we can do. If you don't pay your bill, we're going to shut off your water.’”