Heat or Eat: The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Nutritional and Health Risks Among Children Less Than 3 Years of Age
OBJECTIVES. Public funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has never been sufficient to serve more than a small minority of income-eligible households. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding has not increased with recent rapidly rising energy costs, harsh winter conditions, or higher child poverty rates. Although a national performance goal for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is to increase the percentage of recipient households having ≥1 member ≤5 years of age, the association of income-eligible households' receipt of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program with indicators of well-being in young children has not been evaluated previously. The goal of the current study was to evaluate the association between a family's participation or nonparticipation in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the anthropometric status and health of their young children.
METHODS. In the ongoing Children's Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Project from June 1998 through December 2004, caregivers with children <3 years of age in 2 emergency departments and 3 primary care clinics in 5 urban sites participated in cross-sectional surveys regarding household demographics, child's lifetime history of hospitalizations, and, for the past 12 months, household public assistance program participation and household food insecurity, measured by the US Food Security Scale. This scale, in accordance with established procedures, classifies households as food insecure if they report that they cannot afford enough nutritious food for all of the members to lead active, healthy lives. On the day of the interview, children's weight, length, and whether the children were admitted acutely to the hospital from the emergency departments were documented. The study sample consisted only of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program income-eligible renter households without private insurance who also participated in ≥1 other means-tested program.
RESULTS. In this sample of 7074 caregivers, 16% of families received the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, similar to the national rate of 17%. Caregivers who received the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program were more likely to be single (63% vs 54%), US born (77% vs 68%), and older (mother's mean age: 28.1 vs 26.7 years) but were less likely to be employed (44% vs 47%). Households who received the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program were more likely to receive Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (85% vs 80%), Supplemental Security Income (13% vs 9%), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (38% vs 23%), and food stamps (59% vs 37%) and to live in subsidized housing (38% vs 19%) compared with nonrecipients. Children in families participating in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program were older than children in nonparticipating families (13.6 vs 12.5 months), were less likely to be uninsured (5% vs 9%), and were more likely to have had a low birth weight ≤2500 g (17% vs 14%). Families participating in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program reported more household food insecurity (24% vs 20%) There were no significant group differences between recipients and nonrecipients in caregiver's education or child's gender. After controlling for these potentially confounding variables, including receipt of other means-tested programs, compared with children in recipient households, those in nonrecipient households had greater adjusted odds of being at aggregate nutritional risk for growth problems, defined as children with weight-for-age below the 5th percentile or weight-for-height below the 10th percentile, with significantly lower mean weight-for-age z scores calculated from age- and gender-specific values from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2000 reference data. However, in adjusted analyses, children aged 2 to 3 years in recipient households were not more likely to be overweight (BMI >95th percentile) than those in nonrecipient households. Rates of age-adjusted lifetime hospitalization excluding birth and the day of the interview did not differ between Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program recipient groups. Among the 4445 of 7074 children evaluated in the 2 emergency departments, children from eligible households not receiving the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program had greater adjusted odds than those in recipient households of acute hospital admission on the day of the interview.
CONCLUSIONS. Even within a low-income renter sample, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefits seem to reach families at the highest social and medical risk with more food insecurity and higher rates of low birth-weight children. Nevertheless, after adjustment for differences in background risk, living in a household receiving the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is associated with less anthropometric evidence of undernutrition, no evidence of increased overweight, and lower odds of acute hospitalization from an emergency department visit among young children in low-income renter households compared with children in comparable households not receiving the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in many states shuts down early each winter when their funding is exhausted. From a clinical perspective, pediatric health providers caring for children from impoverished families should consider encouraging families of these children to apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program early in the season before funding is depleted. From a public policy perspective, although this cross-sectional study design can only demonstrate associations and not causation, these findings suggest that, particularly as fuel costs and children's poverty rates increase, expanding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding and meeting the national Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program performance goal of increasing the percentage of recipient households with young children might potentially benefit such children's growth and health.
- Accepted May 29, 2006.
- Copyright © 2006 by the American Academy of Pediatrics