Low-Income Energy Assistance Gets The Ax

Some of us recently get a brief taste of what it means to have your electricity shut off in the dead of winter. As the hours go by, it get cold … and colder. Also very dark.

So you bundle up, scrabble around to find a flashlight, light a fire in the fireplace if you’ve got one, maybe trek over to a friend’s house where the power is still on. Still, you know the discomfort is temporary.

But what if your electricity — or your gas, for that matter — is shut off because you’ve fallen behind in your payments? What if you’re told it will be, but you can’t come up with the cash? What if you’ve got one of those old-time furnaces and can’t afford any more heating oil?

Seems that you’ll have to … well, I don’t know what. Because both the House Appropriations Committee and the Obama administration have decided to demonstrate their deficit-reduction bona fides in part by cutting back on funding for LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program).

The Appropriations Committee’s spending cut list includes a cut in the LIHEAP Contingency Fund — $390.3 million less than what was approved for Fiscal Year 2010 and $590 million less than what the President requested for the current fiscal year.

The Contingency Fund is a pot of money that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services may release to states and other recipients, including the District of Columbia, when needs for home energy assistance rise due to a spike in prices, a natural disaster or some other “emergency,” including unusually cold weather.

Last year, HHS used the entire $590 million that had been budgeted. The Appropriation Committee’s cut would bring the appropriation down to $200 million. Virtually all of it has already been spent.

Meanwhile, the President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget cuts the regular LIHEAP block grant by about 50%. This, says an unnamed administration official, would bring total program funding, “in real terms” to what it was during the Clinton administration. Why the booming days of the mid-1990’s should be an appropriate measure is anybody’s guess.

I can’t help wondering why LIHEAP has been targeted for any cut at all. In terms of the total $3.73 trillion budget, the savings would be miniscule. The impact on low-income households wouldn’t be.

According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 8.3 million households benefited from LIHEAP last year, when the program was funded at $5.1 billion.

Yet only one in five eligible Americans received help from the program because the money wasn’t there for the rest — this according the National Conference of State Legislators and allies, including NEADA.

With funding at $4.1 billion — the level in the current continuing resolution — NEADA expects the average grant to cover only 42% of home heating costs and the number of households served to drop by about a million.

Another unnamed source, presumably in the administration, says that “energy prices are well below their levels … when Congress decided to increase LIHEAP funding to $5.1 billion.”

But average home heating costs are forecast to increase this year, especially in the chilly Northeast. And it’s fair to guess that the number of people in poverty is still at or near the record level the Census Bureau reported for 2009.

No reason I can see to think that energy prices will revert to pre-recession levels or that significantly fewer households will have to choose between heating and eating. No one expects the economy to start generating enough more jobs to put the majority of unemployed people back to work any time soon.

Even if it did, millions of households would still need help with their home energy bills — low-wage workers with families to support, seniors and younger severely disabled people who rely on Social Security, etc.

Matthew Cooper at the National Journal floats a couple of theories on why the President has zeroed in on a small popular program that keeps vulnerable people from freezing — or dying from extreme heat because they can’t pay to keep their air conditioners or fans running.

He’s trying to show that he’s really tough on the deficit, to reposition himself for the next election, to generate fear that will galvanize allies to fight against bigger spending cut threats.

I’ve no idea what’s motivating the President. All I can say is that we’ve got more than enough politicians telling us what tough choices they’re making when they slash spending that’s a life and death matter for the poorest Americans.

Tough on whom?

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