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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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A cold snap in January 2010 revealed the dangers of inadequate heating as residents across the South died in extreme weather conditions. As a winter that is predicted to be especially harsh settles in across the United States this year, the federal government is proposing to cut the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) budget to the bone. It proves to be an especially sharp bone in the Northeast, where residents are expressing alarm about losing fuel assistance they rely on to make it through the winter and are asking for help from their legislators. LIHEAP funding provides a critical lifeline for people who might otherwise be faced with difficult choices between heat and other life expenses like food, medications, and rent. As that lifeline is cut away, the depth of fuel poverty in the United States is being revealed, and it is not a pretty picture.

Significant slashes are being proposed for LIHEAP in this fiscal year, which could create a catastrophe for low-income people already struggling to pay their heating bills and balance other critical household expenses. Last year’s $4.7 billion dollar budget is slated for a $1 billion cut and the House and Senate are currently wrangling over rival funding bills. Meanwhile, constituents cry out for assistance with rising heating costs, concerned about the growing cold temperatures creeping across the United States.

Fuel poverty, defined as an inability to keep a home warm at an “affordable cost,” is a growing issue with an increasing number of US households living in poverty paired with rising costs for fuels used in home heating. In the UK, where fuel poverty has been a political topic since the 1980s, there’s a more formal definition: using more than 10% of household income on heating bills. There’s growing concern this year that thousands of Britons may die due to a fatal combination of high heating bills, drops in government assistance, and rising unemployment.

In the United States, it’s becoming a hot issue with temperatures on the plunge and fuel costs on the rise. The Energy Information Administration estimates that heating oil prices will rise by 8% this winter, and people will also be spending 5% more on propane. For those already spending thousands on home heating costs over the course of the winter, these increases will be significant. They also come at a particularly bad time, as the United States is in the middle of what is being politely termed a “wageless recovery.”

While economists claim the nation is recovering from the economic meltdown that started in 2008 and got progressively worse, many people on the ground are seeing no sign of this alleged recovery. Unemployment is still high, although some statistics have it trending downward, and wages fell over the course of several months in 2011. Those who have jobs are earning less at them, which helps to explain why the Census Bureau estimates that almost 50 million people, or 16% of the population, are living in poverty. Many of them are children.

For corporate interests in the United States, the wageless recovery is excellent news, of course. They’re spending less on labor at the same time they get to pick and choose between highly qualified job applicants, thanks to the huge numbers of unemployed people seeking work in a highly competitive market. Soft market conditions also make it easier to cut benefits, suppress unions, and exploit workers, because the ones who speak up can be easily exchanged for those who won’t. Economic conditions are ideal for big business, but it isn’t passing the benefits on to the rest of the country. This includes, of course, the utilities and refineries that determine heating costs.

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.

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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