States Give Poor Emergency Help Heating Their Houses Amid The Polar Vortex

Workers clear sidewalks of snow on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, in New York. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO
Workers clear sidewalks of snow on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, in New York. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO

Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are all scrambling to temporarily expand their spending to help the poor heat their homes as successive waves of arctic air have pushed propane consumption so high that supplies of the key home heating fuel are falling short of demand nationwide.

Dozens of states across the country have declared states of emergency thanks to the propane shortage, and in some cases the declarations are accompanied by significant changes to state rules for protecting low-income residents from the threat of freezing to death. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) announced a dramatic expansion of the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP, the program that offers heating assistance) in his state on Tuesday, raising the cap on income for eligibility by almost 30 percent and injecting another $10 million to cover the expansion. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) released $5 million in additional LIHEAP money and raised the maximum monthly payment to program participants by about 38 percent on Wednesday. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) distributed $1.5 million in extra LIHEAP spending to the counties in his state where propane is the most frequently used home heating fuel. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) doubled LIHEAP payments to propane- and heating oil-dependent LIHEAP recipients on Tuesday. Further south, states from Kansas to Alabama have declared propane emergencies, loosening rules governing the transport and sale of the fuel and asking the Obama administration to relax federal rules about how long drivers can be on the road as part of their efforts to ease the shortage.


In response to the propane shortage, the renewed “polar vortex” weather pattern, and states of emergency being declared across the country, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association has called on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to release the almost half a billion dollars in 2014 LIHEAP money that the government has held in reserve. Saying that propane users are facing a 19 percent jump in heating costs, the group’s director Larry Dawson urged Sebelius to act quickly given “the harsh reality that more than half of this brutal winter season has yet to come.”

There are 14 million propane-reliant households nationwide and 23 million people who depend upon LIHEAP to keep their homes from being deathly cold in winter or dangerously hot in summer. Lawmakers have cut the program repeatedly in recent years, causing the proportion of a person’s heating costs that LIHEAP covers to drop from about 42 percent to just under 35 percent. Lawmakers had already cut LIHEAP spending by a full 25 percent from 2011 to 2012 before sequestration took a further bite out of the program last year. The recent budget deal restored $169 million in sequestration cuts to LIHEAP — about a 5 percent boost — but still funds the program substantially less than was traditionally the case prior to the austerity wave after 2010.

As ThinkProgress previously reported, LIHEAP administrators said their programs were stretched dangerously thin by the combination of successive years of cuts and a projected rise in heating costs for this winter even before the “polar vortex” weather pattern started grabbing headlines.