Congress Should Act Quickly On LIHEAP
As originally appearing in South Boston Tribune

James T. Brett is the President & CEO of The New England Council

Last month, at the New England Council’s 2010 Annual Dinner in Boston, New Englander of the Year Award recipient Charles Shivery, the Chairman and CEO of Northeast Utilities, announced a $1 million donation from the Northeast Utilities Foundation to benefit fuel assistance programs in the 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 months.  While our economy still lags and thousands are still unemployed, this assistance will be critical to ensuring that families are able to keep their homes warm during the harsh New England winter.

Such private donations may prove even more critical this winter unless Congress takes action to ensure that the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, known as “LIHEAP,” is adequately funded in Fiscal Year 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.

In Fiscal Year 2010, Congress funded LIHEAP at $5.1 billion—one of the few times this critical program has been fully funded at the levels authorized by Congress.   In January, President Obama proposed 2011 funding at $3.3 billion, with a $2 billion contingency fund.  Unfortunately, due to a dysfunctional appropriations process in a highly politicized environment, the process for LIHEAP funding has stalled in both the House and Senate.  Along with many other spending priorities, LIHEAP awaits funding action by the Congress, even as New England days and nights grow colder and colder.

When adequately funded, LIHEAP can have a tremendous impact here in Massachusetts, and throughout the New England states.  In fiscal year 2009, when LIHEAP was funded at $5.1 billion nationally, Massachusetts received $213.5 million.  These funds helped 186,160 struggling households to pay their heating bills that winter.  Today, with Massachusetts’ unemployment rate still at 8.4%, representing over 290,000 unemployed residents in the state, 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 quite dire for many households in colder states.  With the national unemployment rate still hovering near ten percent, millions of families and individuals, including many elderly, will undoubtedly struggle to keep the heat on in the coming months.  Last winter, approximately 7 million people across the nation 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 combined with higher energy prices will result in the average cost of heating a home with oil this winter to increase as much as 12%.  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 CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, New England’s largest human service agency, recently described this situation as a “perfect storm, particularly for seniors and low-income families.  However, it is not too late to prevent this storm from striking New England.

Certainly no one envies our leaders in Washington the challenges they face in allocating our limited federal dollars.  The lame duck session already has a laundry list of issues to address, and the list will only be longer for the 112th Congress 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 the country will struggle to make ends meet this winter.  We urge Congress take action and find a way to adequately fund LIHEAP, lest they leave countless New England families, quite literally, out in the cold.

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