It may be considered a mild winter this year, but Americans sure aren't feeling it in their energy bills.
The number of households receiving energy assistance during the current winter season rose an estimated 1.3 million, from 4.9 million to 6.2 million, the largest one-year increase since 2009 and the highest total rate of applications since 2011, according to policy organization National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA) on Monday.
Applications for energy help is made through the federal social services Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in each state.
"These numbers don't even account for possible increases in applications this summer to help families pay for air-conditioning as they deal with rising temperatures due to climate change," said Mark Wolfe, NEADA executive director. "We could hit record levels of applications this year if current trends continue."
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Why are Americans struggling with energy bills?
Families are struggling to pay high energy bills along with other rising costs for essential goods, like food and rent, that are increasing at a faster rate than the overall rate of inflation. Grocery prices rose 10.4% annually in December while rents rose about 7.5%, while overall inflation increased by 6.5%.
Energy prices soared last year as demand jumped with economies around the world reopening after the COVID pandemic, and energy supplies dwindling pted after Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is one of the largest energy producers in the world.
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Home heating prices are at the highest level in 10 years, NEADA said. On average, households will pay 12.7% more for home heating this winter. Heating oil is expected to rise the most from last year, up 25.9%, or nearly $500 more than the 2021-22 winter heating season. Natural gas was forecast to rise 14.5%, or more than an additional $100, NEADA said.
How far behind are Americans on their utilities?
One out of six, or about 20.8 million, households owed an average of $791, up slightly from June 2022 when the average amount owed was about $783.
The total amount families nationwide are behind on their electric gas bills is around $16.6 billion.
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What if applications for energy help continue to rise?
States currently have sufficient funds to help families pay their winter energy bills, but the real fear is if applications continue to rise at a fast clip.
"States are concerned that they will not have sufficient remaining funds to help families pay for cooling assistance this summer as the need for this assistance increases with rising summer temperatures," Wolfe said.
Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at email@example.com and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Energy prices, inflation push Americans to seek help paying utility bills