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Electric bill assistance needed by many in Michigan

MARQUETTE — Michigan 2-1-1 has received more than 67,000 calls from people seeking help with electric bill payments during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Also, from April 18 through Sunday, electric bill assistance has been the top request from callers.

Only about half of the electric assistance requests over the last three months were due to pandemic-related hardship, the report indicated, and the recent increase in calls shows how thin the margin is for Michigan families to be able to keep their power on and their home temperatures safe.

The new MLPP report, titled “Empowering Families with Affordable Energy,” shows that 33% of household income for Michigan families living below 50% of the federal poverty level goes to energy bills alone, leaving little room in their budgets for other basic needs.

Between actual energy bills and what they can afford, Michigan households up to 200% of the FPL — around 3 million people — face a gap of $1,315 each year.

“All families deserve affordable, safe homes, and energy bills stand in the way of that for many Michigan residents,” said Gilda Z. Jacobs, president and CEO of the MLPP, in a statement. “And as with many problems our state faces, energy usage and efficiency shows racial disparities and inequities that impact physical and mental health, safety and financial stability.”

Before COVID-19 emerged, help with utility bills was consistently one of the most common reasons people contacted Michigan 2-1-1, MLPP said. Even though energy providers suspended disconnections to vulnerable customers for the first few months of the pandemic and have worked to connect them to assistance and affordable payment plans, keeping up with the cost of essential energy needs continues to pose a significant threat to Michigan families — one that MLPP noted preceded this health crisis and will persist beyond it.

The league’s research also showed that utility costs burden households with low incomes and households of color especially. Without proper housing and with long-standing housing discrimination, Michigan families’ health and economic stability remains in jeopardy. Families of color in particular face higher energy cost burdens due to the historical discrimination that limits homeownership opportunities. This inequity is a driving factor of eviction and housing instability.

“Energy efficiency and utility costs pose serious health risks and contribute to racial health disparities,” Jacobs said. “These aren’t only physical burdens, but can have negative impacts on education, employment and income. Heat and electricity are critical for a safe home, and energy use is imperative for personal hygiene, household cleanliness, food preparation and more.”

The league pointed out that Michigan has the highest rate of asthma in the nation, causing many to miss work and school. Many structural issues that lead to energy waste and make it hard to maintain a comfortable temperature in the home can also trigger asthma episodes.

The league’s report outlines some ways lawmakers can help Michiganders with their energy costs, noting there are no laws to protect households with young children from utility shutoffs. Older adults with serious medical conditions have shutoff protections, so children, who face similar health risks from unhealthy temperatures in the home, should not be an exception to protection.

Upping the investment in energy efficiency in Michigan and repairing the state’s aging housing stock will have ripple effects for overall health, health care costs, neighborhood stability and environmental benefits for all, MLPP said. It also suggests energy providers look at income-based utility bills to promote greater predictability and overall housing stability for households with low incomes.

MLPP, based in Lansing, is a nonprofit policy institute focused on opportunity for all. For more information, visit www.mlpp.org.

Tribe mailing forms

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians announced it is mailing COVID-19 Rescue Act Membership Assistance Program Verification forms to all Sault Tribe households.

Tribal members are asked to be patient as the tribe sends out forms in several large mailings.

An electronic form located at the top of the tribe’s official website, saulttribe.com, is also available for tribal members who prefer to submit online.

The board of directors established the Sault Tribe COVID-19 Rescue Act Membership Assistance Program to protect the health and welfare of the tribal membership and to ensure reasonable resources are available to respond to negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The program provides a one-time $2,000 grant to all eligible tribal members. Tribal members or legal guardians of members under 18 should complete and return this form to the Sault Tribe Enrollment Department. Each tribal member, whether an adult or child, will receive a separate form that must be completed and returned.

The deadline for adults to submit a form is Sept. 30 while the deadline for members under 18 is Dec. 31.

Questions should be directed to Josh Elliot at 906-635-6050, between 8 and 10 a.m. weekdays.

Video released

The Protect Michigan Commission Tribal Workgroup on Thursday released a Healing Song video encouraging all Native Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect all generations, youth and elders, of their communities.

“As tribal communities begin to open up and host powwows again, it is important for the Native American community to protect itself from COVID as they reunite in large groups,” said Robyn Burlingham, Protect Michigan Commission Tribal Workgroup member and a citizen of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, in a news release. “I am pleased to have this new resource to encourage vaccinations amongst Native Americans, because getting the vaccine is essential for our health and safety, the safety of our communities, and the protection of our knowledge keepers and culture for current and future generations.”

The video’s “Healing Song” was written and performed by Woodland Stream, a Native American drum group, and is meant to help Native American communities in Michigan and across the U.S. heal and move forward and protect themselves and their relatives from COVID-19.

Additional monthly payments set

All Michigan families who are eligible for food assistance benefits are receiving an additional monthly payment this month in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced on Thursday.

More than 1.25 million people in close to 700,000 Michigan households will benefit under approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services.

“As we emerge from the pandemic and continue our economic jump start, we must use the federal dollars we have to help Michiganders put food on the table,” Whitmer said in a statement. “My administration, MDHHS and other partners have worked to ensure that nobody went hungry in the middle of a global pandemic. It is essential for us to continue our efforts, and I thank the Biden administration for helping us feed 1.25 million Michiganders.”

Some Michiganders began receiving additional food assistance in April 2020 after the beginning of the pandemic the month before. This past May, all eligible households began getting extra monthly benefits. Federal approval is necessary every month.

“MDHHS will continue to strive to help low-income residents who have been affected by the pandemic put food on the table,” MDDHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement. “Many residents have been forced to leave the workforce — whether it’s due to lack of child care, health effects from COVID or other reasons. There is still great need for this food assistance.”

All households eligible for SNAP receive an increase of at least $95 monthly, even if they are already receiving the maximum payment or are close to that amount. Households that received over $95 to bring them to the maximum payment for their group size will continue to receive that larger amount.

Eligible clients will see additional food assistance benefits on their Bridge Card by Tuesday. Additional benefits will be loaded onto Bridge Cards as a separate payment from the assistance that is provided earlier in the month.

The federal government is providing additional funding to states for food assistance under House Resolution 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

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