Congress Must Act Fast On Heating Aid
As originally appearing in The Providence Journal

James T. Brett is the president and CEO of The New England Council

Last month, at the New England Council’s annual dinner in Boston, New Englander of the Year Award recipient Charles Shivery, chairman and chief executive of Northeast Utilities, announced a $1 million donation from the Northeast Utilities Foundation to benefit fuel-assistance programs in states where the company provides energy. This generous donation will provide much-needed support to low-income families in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the coming winter. While our economy still lags and many thousands are still unemployed, this help will be critical to ensuring that families can keep their homes warm during the harsh New England winter.

Such private donations may prove even more critical this winter unless Congress acts to ensure that the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, is adequately funded in fiscal 2011.

LIHEAP is a federally funded program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children & Families. The program assists low-income households — particularly those with the lowest incomes that pay a high proportion of that income for home energy costs — to meet their energy needs. Every year, tens of thousands of families in New England depend on LIHEAP for help paying their winter heating bills. The entire Rhode Island congressional delegation has been vocal supporters of the program over the years.

In fiscal 2010, Congress funded LIHEAP at $5.1 billion — the same level that it had been funded at since 2005. However, in January, President Obama proposed cutting that funding to $3.3 billion, with a $2 billion contingency fund. The House passed legislation that level-funded the program at $5.1 billion, but the Senate only approved $3.3 billion in LIHEAP funding. The program is currently funded at that lower level of $3.3 billion, marking a 36 percent decrease from last winter’s funding level.

When adequately funded, LIHEAP can have a tremendous impact throughout New England. In fiscal 2009, when LIHEAP was funded at $5.1 billion nationally, Massachusetts received $38.5 million. These funds helped 33,932 struggling households pay their heating bills that winter. Today, with Rhode Island’s unemployment rate still one of the nation’s highest, there will surely be just as many families, if not more, in need of that kind of assistance.

If that same level of funding is not made available this winter, the situation could be dire for many households in colder states. With the national unemployment rate still hovering near 10 percent, millions of families and individuals, including many elderly, will undoubtedly struggle to keep the heat on in the coming months. Last winter, about 7 million people across America applied for fuel assistance, and that number is expected to increase to 8 million this winter.

At the same time, heating costs are only increasing. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, anticipated colder weather this winter than last, combined with higher energy prices, will cause the average cost of heating a home with oil this winter to increase as much as 12 percent. Here in the Northeast where we have some of the lowest temperatures, the average cost of heating a home with oil this winter is estimated at $2,201. Those who use electric or natural gas will fare somewhat better, with estimated costs of $1,485 per household with electric, and $1,153 per household with natural gas. Yet unless Congress takes action to fully fund LIHEAP, the maximum subsidy available to the poorest families will be only $515.

John Drew, the chief executive of Action for Boston Community Development, New England’s largest local human-service agency, recently called this situation a “perfect storm,” particularly for seniors and low-income families. However, it is not too late to prevent this storm from striking New England.

No one envies our leaders in Washington the challenges they face in allocating our limited federal dollars. The lame-duck session already has a long list of issues to address, and the list will only be longer for the 112th Congress, which opens in January. There are countless demands for federal funding for many worthy causes, particularly in today’s difficult economy. But it is because of our current economic situation and record high unemployment rates that so many families in New England and across America will struggle to make ends meet this winter.

We urge Congress to find a way to adequately fund LIHEAP, lest they leave countless New England families, quite literally, out in the cold.

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