‘People Do Die': How Steep Cuts And Shutdown Politics Endanger Home Heating Aid

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"‘People Do Die': How Steep Cuts And Shutdown Politics Endanger Home Heating Aid"

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CREDIT: AP

Winter is coming, but the vouchers that supply more than 20 million poor Americans with fuel to heat their homes during the season may not be. With the federal government still shuttered and Republicans in the House refusing to reopen it, the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) currently does not have any funding appropriated for the coming winter.

Like many other safety net expenditures, the heating program is being pinched by both spending cuts and increasing costs, and National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA) executive director Mark Wolfe worries that shutdown-related delays in funding the program will endanger its ability to protect the poorest people from the cold. “It’s gonna be a very tough winter,” Wolfe said in an interview. Leftover funds from the fiscal year that just ended give the state-level agencies that administer LIHEAP some leeway for now. But states can’t legally carry over more than 10 percent of the previous year’s funds, and that held-over cash usually doesn’t go to actual fuel payments. Because most states shut down their LIHEAP administration offices during warmer months, the carryover funds typically pay for re-initiating administrative systems that were shut down. The government shutdown isn’t taking away heating vouchers yet — “it’s not good, but you can work with it,” Wolfe said — but if it lasts into November that could change.

“There’s no magic number for how much money we need,” Wolfe said, but between spending cuts and rising prices, “we’re getting down to the bone.”

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its projections for winter temperatures and heating costs on Tuesday. EIA expects it to be 3 percent colder across the Northeast compared to last winter. While the cost of heating a home with oil is projected to tick down by 2 percent, electric heat will be 2 percent more costly, propane costs will climb by 9 percent, and natural gas costs will rise a full 13 percent, according to the EIA. “Normally, a price spike or a weather spike would get more sympathy in Congress and there’d be a supplemental spending bill,” Wolfe said. But these aren’t normal times.

Heating aid has already absorbed huge cuts as part of the austerity push of the past few years, including a 25 percent cut from 2011 to 2012. “Then the sequester hit,” Wolfe said. Sequestration cuts meant the program suddenly covered less than 35 percent of a family’s home heating costs, compared to 42 percent previously. “For families living on the edge, this pushes them over,” Wolfe said, adding that “in the past we could always count on Congress finding more money.” Anti-spending conservatives have long supported LIHEAP out of the understanding that poor families can set aside some money for heat, “but if it’s colder or war erupts in the Middle East there’s no way a family can suddenly pay twice as much,” he said. “But we’re in an environment now where Congress doesn’t find more money for anything.” The number of households (8.9 million) and individuals (23 million) reliant upon LIHEAP hasn’t fallen since 2011, even though the funding has. In 2012, one in five LIHEAP households included a military veteran, up from 12 percent prior to the Great Recession.

Wolfe warned that resolving the shutdown will just be the beginning of the process of getting states their LIHEAP money – a process that has sometimes taken over a month for lawmakers to figure out even under more normal budgeting processes than the current dysfunction.

“If you assume that the sun, moon, and stars come together, it’ll be three weeks,” Wolfe said. “But when the government reopens there’ll be a lot of other stuff left on people’s desks too.” He’s holding out against a piecemeal fix to restore funding to the program, however. “We don’t see an extra dollar for LIHEAP as a good thing if it’s taken from Head Start.”

He warned that “states will not start their programs until they know how much money they’ll get.” That puts substantial pressure on those leftover 2013 dollars, and Wolfe couldn’t say how much each state had on hand to deal with early winter weather.

Luckily for the poor in South Dakota, where an early blizzard left tens of thousands without power this week, the freezing weather hasn’t stuck around. A spokeswoman for the state’s LIHEAP program told ThinkProgress that the storm hasn’t affected demand for heating assistance, and that there are enough leftover fiscal year 2013 funds to support the program administration for now. Representatives for the Maine LIHEAP program didn’t respond to inquiries about the state of their leftover funding, but the state’s housing authority can’t start making payments on behalf of the 55,000 Maine households that qualify for heating assistance until Congress appropriates LIHEAP money. According to Accuweather, low temperatures in Maine will slip down between the upper 20s and upper-to-mid 30s by mid-October. 200,000 Massachusetts LIHEAP households and 100,000 in Connecticut remain in a similar limbo.

“It’s not hard to figure out what happens here” if the money doesn’t come through in time or in sufficient volume, NEADA’s Wolfe said. “There are gonna be more families that are unable to pay their energy bill.”

“And people do die,” he added, his voice rising. “They turn their heat down too low and they die.”

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