TRENTON - The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) Aug. 7 approved amendments to the Universal Service Fund (USF) energy assistance program, raising the income eligibility limit from 175 percent to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, meaning a monthly gross income of $3,870 for a family of four.
According to a release, the modifications, effective Oct. 1, 2019, will expand the eligibility criteria to approximately 5,700 additional low-income households in New Jersey.
“Several months ago I asked our staff to look into how the Universal Service Fund could better help residents keep their gas and electric on through financial hardship,” stated NJBPU President Joseph L. Fiordaliso. “Updating the income threshold to make more residents eligible for support is an important step in furthering our mission of ensuring affordable utility service for all customers in the Garden State. The measure of a society is how well it takes care of its vulnerable, and I am proud that today New Jersey is doing just that.”
The USF, established in 2003 and funded by the Societal Benefits Charge on ratepayers’ utility bills, is a state-wide energy assistance program that ensures low-income electric and gas utility customers have access to more affordable energy.
In 2018, the USF program assisted 174,943 New Jersey households with benefits totaling over $115 million.
In April, NJBPU sought public input on how the program could better serve the needs of New Jersey’s low-income population. Comments were accepted during a public stakeholder meeting held in May in Trenton, as well as via written submission.
After a review process, the board determined that the USF income eligibility limit should be raised from 175 percent of Federal Poverty Level to 185 percent, bringing it to parity with the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) income limit and eliminating the gap between the assistance programs’ eligibility requirements.
To be eligible for USF assistance, applicants must be income-eligible and spend more than 3 percent of their annual income for each electric and gas utility service or more than 6 percent of annual income on electric heat. Assistance benefits are distributed directly to the utility companies and reflected as monthly bill credits for eligible USF customers, with a benefit cap of $150 per month or $1,800 per year.
First-time USF enrollees are also eligible for the Fresh Start program, which provides debt forgiveness for overdue energy balances of $60 or more.
The USF program is administered by the Department of Community Affairs and shares an application with the Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
More information about these and other energy assistance programs can be found at www.energyassistance.nj.gov.