Frozen Out: Is Congress About to Slash Heating Assistance Funds Just as Temperatures Plummet?
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The numbers on fuel costs and unemployment are bad, but it gets worse; 2011 has been a year of recordbreaking severe weather, and forecasters predict this winter will be very cold, in the Northeast in particular. Residents of Northeastern states can expect heavy snow and harsh conditions, and will need to turn their thermostats up to cope, particularly if they are older or disabled and need warm homes to prevent medical complications. Whether home heating means getting the house to a comfortable temperature or a tolerable one, it’s going to be expensive.
Which is where LIHEAP is supposed to come in, to bridge the gap between the cost of energy and what people can afford. This federally funded program provides funding for individual states, territories, and tribes to distribute among residents who need assistance with heating prices. These critical monies are available to people making between 110% and 150% of the poverty level, depending on policies at individual state agencies responsible for disbursing them, and can help relieve energy burdens on low-income households. LIHEAP funding can be life and death for some families.
Statistically, some households are more likely to spend a high percentage of their income on home heating than others. The less a household makes, the more money has to be dedicated to heating costs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development notes that families making a median income pay 4% of their income on utilities, including heating in contrast with older adults living on Social Security (19%) and people with disabilities (25%), many of whom are also surviving on government benefits programs that are inadequate for their needs. In the United Kingdom, the fuel poverty crisis began spreading to the middle class earlier this year and the United States is likely to see a similar trend. This issue is one that affects a broad range of social classes, and it cannot be ignored forever.
We learned this when the cold snap last January proved fatal for some Americans who couldn’t afford their heating bills or were stranded without electricity. Homelessness in cold weather can often be deadly, because shelters cannot accommodate everyone who needs assistance, and people turned away in severe weather may not survive. Unsurprisingly, one factor in homelessness can be utility bills; evictions related to unpaid utility services disproportionately impact low-income families and can leave them in a vulnerable position, unable to locate new housing with an eviction history and limited income.
Not all of the deaths associated with cold weather events have to do with exposure. House fires are more common in extreme cold, especially in homes occupied by people who cannot afford to maintain heating units and their accompanying ventilation systems. Renters rely on landlords to perform this vital safety maintenance, which is often left far too long, particularly in low-income housing units. Furthermore, people who can't afford heating fuel are more likely to rely on unsafe methods of heating, like propane cookstoves, poorly-maintained electric heaters, and similar devices. Fire departments across the country are preparing for house fires related to defective or poorly maintained heating units, even as they, too, have to cope with funding cuts.
Failing to provide assistance with energy costs also contributes to the creation of serious health problems; people with chronic illnesses, as well as older adults, are at increased risk of medical complications in the cold. Improperly heated homes can contribute to the development of severe illness that may linger untreated as people huddle under the covers to make do. When those patients do finally receive care because they’ve reached critical condition, the costs for their treatment can high—certainly higher than their heating bills would have been.