Back at the end of last week, I took a couple of minutes to make fun of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s rather bizarre assertion that providing money to help poor people weatherize their homes won’t stimulate the economy or create jobs. Since then, I’ve taken a much more detailed look at the program, and I’ve begun to realize not only just how good an idea this particular part of the stimulus package is, but also just how many different ways this is smart.
Here’s the proposal as it stands right now:
$6,200,000,000 shall be for the Weatherization Assistance Program under part A of title IV of the Energy Conservation and Production Act (42 U.S.C. 6861 et seq.).
Let’s look at some of the different reasons that this bit of funding is a good idea. Since this is a stimulus bill, we’ll start out by looking at the reasons that this is a good economic stimulus.
As I write this, I’m listening to one of Cantor’s deputies – Chief Deputy Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy – give an interview to MSNBC. He’s objecting to the stimulus bill for a number of reasons. Among the laundry list of objections he’s citing are that the money isn’t going to get into the economy quickly enough, and that it doesn’t do enough to help small business. At least as far as this particular line item is concerned, those objections do not apply.
The Weatherization Assistance Program has been around for a long time, although not at anything remotely close to the proposed funding level. (The stimulus proposal represents about a 25-fold funding increase.) Because the program already exists, it will be much easier to get the money distributed than would be the case if we were talking about an entirely new idea. All of the mechanisms for distributing the money are in place already, so it should be possible to start spending this money within a matter of a couple of months of the OK, at most.
The amount of money that can be used under this program to fix a single house varies from state to state, but the average is under $3,000. Weatherization improvements tend to be relatively small – as are the companies that do most of the work. Most of this money will be going to home improvement contractors, not to major corporations. This will help small businesses. In fact, it will help lots of small businesses all over the country.
That’s because under this program the Department of Energy distributes the money to the individual states, following a formula that divides up the funding based on a number of different factors. The states then set eligibility criteria, and distribute the money to the families that need it. This means that not only is the money going to be spent quickly, it will also be spent in all 50 states.
This is also spending that should help the employment picture, at least in the short term. According to the Department of Energy, this program has been responsible for weatherizing between 75,000 and 100,000 homes per year. Even if we assume that only a third of the funding will be spent this year, and that the amount spent per home almost doubles, that number should climb to over 400,000 homes this year. That’s going to require more workers than have been involved in the past. That’s not necessarily going to create new jobs, but at the absolute worst it will save some by providing work for contracting firms that would otherwise have been underemployed.
In addition to the short-term benefits that I just outlined, there are other economic benefits that are less direct.
In most states, Weatherization Assistance Program money is restricted to families making less than 150% of the federal poverty level. Energy expenses tend to make up a larger proportion of the budget for these families than is the case in the higher income brackets. A $358/year reduction in energy costs – which is about what you get with weatherization – might not sound like much to a lot of us. But to a family of four at 150% of the poverty line, that works out to the equivalent of just over 1% of their annual income.
And that’s not just $358 this year. That’s a savings that will recur every year for the lifetime of the weatherization. Even if we assume that the weatherization is only going to last for 10 years, that’s a long-term income boost of over $3,500 per weatherized home, and that’s above and beyond whatever short-term economic benefits are produced by the actual construction work.
And then there are the energy policy benefits.
In his confirmation hearing, Energy Secretary Steven Chu described increasing energy efficiency as, “the lowest-hanging fruit” when it comes to both reducing our carbon footprint and decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of energy. He could not possibly be more right.
A caulk gun might not be as sexy a piece of green technology as a solar panel, or a Prius, or a clean coal plant – particularly when it’s being wielded by someone displaying four inches of hairy butt crack – but it’s got enormous advantages over all of that other stuff. It’s cheap, it requires relatively little training to use effectively, it’s here now, AND IT WORKS.
Weatherizing a house can reduce that home’s energy consumption significantly. According to a 2002 study conducted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (pdf), a weatherization project that costs approximately $2,500 per home can reduce that home’s energy costs and carbon dioxide emissions by between 14% and 25%, depending on where the house is located and how poorly weatherized it was to begin with.
Let’s stop and think about that for a second. Effectively, this means that even if just 10% of the homes in this country are in need of weatherization, we could theoretically cut emissions by 1%-2% just by fixing that problem. We could do that at an up front cost of only $2500/home, realize long-term economic benefits of $3500/home or more, stimulate the economy in the process, and get the job done in a couple of years using nothing more than currently existing technology. That’s not just a low-hanging fruit. That’s a huge, juicy, delicious low-hanging fruit.
Would anyone like to take another crack at explaining why this is actually a bad part of the stimulus package that won’t really do anything for the economy?