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Frozen Out: Is Congress About to Slash Heating Assistance Funds Just as Temperatures Plummet?

As the heating assistance lifeline is cut away, the depth of fuel poverty in the United States is being revealed, and it is not a pretty picture.

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According to Andrew Miga at the Associated Press, residents of the Northeast can expect to spend an average of $3,300 for home heating fuel oil over the winter months, up $500 from last winter. That’s a large bill to cover in a very short time span. Lingering cold snaps into the spring in some regions could drive the overall expense up even higher, increasing the burden on low-income households attempting to recover from the winter months. As it is, there are more applicants for LIHEAP assistance than funds available, and Congress is apparently proposing to increase the intensity of that disparity with its proposed cuts.

Senators Olympia Snowe (D-ME), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), are pushing for action on this issue for their constituents before it’s too late and applicants are left literally out in the cold. They’ve been joined by Rhode Island’s Attorney General, Peter Kilmartin, who points out that: “More Rhode Island families than ever before rely on federal food assistance benefits and local food pantries to put enough food on the table. And still, too many children and adults in Rhode Island will go hungry tonight. I urge you not to let them go to bed cold too.” State governors are also joining the chorus, expressing their concerns about making up funding shortfalls if LIHEAP is cut, given that many states are already making significant budget cuts to meet their expenses.

Senator Sanders proposes maintaining funding at its current level, rejecting the calls for cuts to keep houses warm through the winter. Last year, LIHEAP helped almost nine million US households pay their fuel expenses, and it’s clear that many more could have benefited from that assistance, making the proposed cut clearly a bad idea. The Senator’s counterpart in the House, Representative Peter Welch, is also pushing to keep the funding at its current level. Meanwhile, Vermont is already thinking ahead with schemes to address high heating bills in the event the LIHEAP proposals fall through. Other states are doing the same, as they’ve learned the hard way that Congress may not necessarily be there for them in their time of need.

Inaction on LIHEAP in Congress is condemning Americans to death this winter, adding to the expenses of the already struggling health care system, and increasing the risk that more people will become homeless. Members of Congress have a relatively comfortable position from which to negotiate; none of them need to debate whether they should take the thermostat above 60 if they’re feeling a little chilly. They also don’t need to add blankets to the bed and swaddle themselves in sweaters indoors to survive the winter, unlike their constituents, who are counting on them to be their advocates in Washington.

How many people the United States government is willing to allow to freeze to death this winter remains to be seen, but it is a slap in the face to know that federal funds are apparently available to bail out banks, but not to heat the homes of the American people. It’s going to be a long, hard winter in many parts of the US, and some of us are not going to make it to the other side.

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.

 
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