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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.

 
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