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High Prices Are Magnifying Congress’ Cuts To Energy Assistance

Our guest blogger is Katie Wright, a Research Associate with the Half in Ten Campaign at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

According to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), families will be spending more to heat their homes this winter. The EIA projects that families will need to spend, on average, “nearly 20 percent more on heating oil and 15 percent more on natural gas. Households depending on electricity and propane can expect to see average increases of 5 percent and 13 percent respectively.

Those in the Northeast will be hit particularly hard, as they are more likely to heat their homes using oil, which is expected to cost more this winter than it has in any previous winter on record. Heating costs in the Northeast are being driven up by higher than average oil prices, up 6 percent from this time last year. Oil price fluctuation is impossible for the U.S. to control, since prices are set on the world market that is controlled by the OPEC cartel.

Higher fuel costs could spell disaster for the nearly seven million Americans who receive help paying energy bills from the Low Income Housing Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP keeps families, particularly those with members who are children or elderly, safe in all seasons by helping them pay energy bills and weatherize their homes so they can stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Research by Children’s HealthWatch shows that children in families that received LIHEAP were more likely to be at a healthier weights, and were less likely to have growth problems or be hospitalized than those who didn’t receive LIHEAP.

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Despite the important role LIHEAP plays in child development and in family well-being, Congress cut funding for LIHEAP by about $1.6 billion, or more than 30 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, from $5.1 billion to $3.47 billion. As a result, more than one million households have lost benefits entirely, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. For those still receiving benefits, they’ve seen their average benefit decline from $513 in fiscal year 2010 to about $405 in fiscal year 2012.

Poor families facing higher energy costs and diminished LIHEAP benefits will be in trouble this winter as they struggle to pay higher bills with fewer resources. In recognition that this could put families in crisis, a bipartisan group of 40 senators asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius in a letter yesterday to release funds for LIHEAP as quickly and at as high a level as possible.