How Many More Low-Income Households Will Be Left in the Cold?

On Sunday, a blast of cold air arrived in Washington, D.C. With the gusting winds, the feel temperature around mid-day was 21 degrees. So much for my plans to cut down the withered vines and sweep up the mounded leaves in our backyard.

Instead, I spent part of the afternoon cleaning out my inbox, where I found a press release that made me feel at once privileged and newly distressed about the hardships that sequestration is causing.

About 300,000 fewer low-income households received help with their home heating and cooling costs last fiscal year, reports the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents the state directors of the federally-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

This was a direct result of sequestration, NEADA says. But the cut came on top of other cuts that began in Fiscal Year 2010. The cumulative losses have reduced the number of households served by 17%, or 1.4 million.

At the same time, the average grant households received shrank from $520 to $406. And even during the baseline period, the average grant didn’t cover estimated heating costs.

The shortfall was greatest — and has remained so — for households that use heating oil. These are largely households in the Northeast, where, as you know, it can get bitter cold.

But even households like ours, which use natural gas, would have had to come up with about 40% of their heating costs last winter, assuming the estimated seasonal cost and average grant apply.

Prospects for the winter season that seems to have begun are worse. Home heating costs are expected to rise by an average of 6%, due mainly to a 13% spike for households using natural gas.

This translates into a further purchasing power loss for LIHEAP — from 52.5% of the average household’s home heating costs in 2010-11 to a projected 41.5%.

And this doesn’t factor in any additional funding cut for the current fiscal year. NEADA seems to think that another cut will occur unless Congress “takes action to reverse” sequestration — by which I assume it means the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act.

In point of fact, non-defense discretionary programs like LIHEAP, i.e. those that depend on annual appropriations, will collectively meet their Fiscal Year 2014 spending cap without further cuts because Congress tinkered with the BCA to give defense some one-year protection.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to worry. Republicans generally — and some Democrats — want to shield the Pentagon from the $20 billion cut it faces.

At the same time, some leading Republicans insist that the total discretionary spending level the BCA imposes must remain the same. That’s not possible, of course, unless that $20 billion is shifted over to the non-defense side of the ledger.

It’s doubtful we’ll see this sort of deal. But a deal that preserves the existing NDD cap would still leave LIHEAP vulnerable because Congress could decide to trim it in order to boost spending on other programs, as the President’s proposed budget did.

Even if Congress can’t agree on anything more than a continuing resolution, more low-income households could be left without home energy assistance because, as the NEADA press release indicates, level funding won’t be enough to help even as many households as were helped last winter — unless grants are further reduced.

No (or less) energy assistance could mean no heat this winter — perhaps no indoor lighting or ability to cook either. The loss would affect some of the most vulnerable people in the country, according to a survey NEADA conducted several years ago.

Seventy-two percent of the households served then had a family member with a serious medical condition. Of these, 26% relied on medical equipment that used electricity. Even with a LIHEAP grant — or perhaps before they received it — 19% got sick because their homes were too cold.

Merely restoring LIHEAP to its Fiscal 2010 level would leave more than 99.8% of the estimated budget for other purposes.*

Something I would hope members of Congress think about as they sit snug and warm in their homes this weekend.

* This figure reflects the result yielded by the Center for Economic and Policy Research responsible budget calculator.

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One Response to How Many More Low-Income Households Will Be Left in the Cold?

  1. […] One would be hard put, I think, to deny that they’re exploiting a loophole, though for the best of reasons. Utility costs are often high, whether paid directly or indirectly. And LIHEAP funding doesn’t enable states to help all who need it — fewer indeed than it used to. […]

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