DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Air conditioning is increasingly becoming a necessity, not a luxury, as the number of Americans living in the Sunbelt grows. In Arizona, many people are struggling to keep up with their utility bills. The federal government does have an energy assistance program, but funding is shrinking, and it favors cold weather states that need heating help.
From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Jude Joffe-Block reports.
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: Earlier this summer, Phoenix was in the midst of a brutal heat wave, with temperatures nearing 120 degrees. And Richard Abbington was on the brink of losing power and his air conditioning.
RICHARD ABBINGTON: Usually, at the end of the month, that's when things get chaotic. I'm out of money.
ABBINGTON: A lot of times, I'm out of food.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Abbington had a stroke a few years ago, and lives on Social Security disability. He's on a pay-as-you-go energy plan, but then he ran out of money. So the power went out: the lights, the appliances, and the AC.
ABBINGTON: I just opened the windows up, and let it be whatever it was going to be, you know. I couldn't do nothing else, you know. I'm glad I didn't have no food in the fridge, because if I had, everything I had would have spoiled.
JOFFE-BLOCK: There also could have been health consequences. Last year, more than 40 percent of the heat-associated deaths in this county happened indoors. In most of those cases, the air conditioning was off. Meanwhile, every day across the state, hundreds of households are delinquent on their utility bills, and are at risk for having their power shut off. And that's when they try to get help.
CYNTHIA ZWICK: The need is great, and the resources to serve not so great.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Cynthia Zwick works on poverty issues for the Arizona Community Action Association. Last year, through a federal program called Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, Arizona got funding to help around 40,000 households. But that's only a tiny fraction of those in poverty here. Local offices that give out the funds are overwhelmed.
ZWICK: People start calling in. It's busy. It's busy. It's busy. They're calling over and over. It is kind of like when you're trying to win the radio contest.
JOFFE-BLOCK: The program began in the early '80s to defray a surge in heating costs. Later, it was expanded to provide cooling assistance, as well. But the formula still favors cold-weather states over warm-weather states. So, Connecticut - a state with a smaller population than Arizona's - got more than three times the funding this year. Zwick is trying to change that.
ZWICK: All we're asking for is an equal distribution of those funds, based on the numbers of people living in poverty, numbers of people unemployed, heating and cooling degree days.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, we just have greater sensitivity to extreme cold than we do to extreme heat, as a political matter.
JOFFE-BLOCK: New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg says that bias is misguided. But he says the real issue isn't that poor people in cold states are getting too much federal assistance. It's that there isn't enough funding overall.
KLINENBERG: This is the kind of program that we're going to need to expand as the weather gets more extreme and dangerous, and as the population gets older and more vulnerable.
JOFFE-BLOCK: But this year, LIHEAP funding overall is 30 percent lower than it was two years ago. In Arizona, the other source of assistance comes from local utility companies, which offer discount and charity programs to needy customers.
This summer, Phoenix senior Richard Abbington managed to be among the lucky ones to get federal help. After weeks of dialing and re-dialing, he finally got through and was awarded more than $400 towards his bill.
ABBINGTON: Everything just opened up for me, you know, and I feel relieved. I don't have to worry about this electricity now, you know.
JOFFE-BLOCK: At least not until next summer.
For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block, in Phoenix.
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GREENE: And Jude's story comes to us from Fronteras, a Public Radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on changing demographics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.