Trump budget could mean fatally cold winters for some of America’s poor

Ending home heating subsidies is a choice to let people die.

A man delivers heating oil to a house in Maine in 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
A man delivers heating oil to a house in Maine in 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Last winter, you helped six million American households — all of them poor and most of them home to a senior citizen, young child, or disabled adult — keep the heat on through the winter.

You didn’t do it on purpose. The government did it for you, through a program American lawmakers created in 1980 in hopes that no one in the world’s richest country would have to choose between buying groceries and avoiding hypothermia.

Since the dawn of the Reagan era, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has subsidized the utility bills of tens of millions of Americans through hoary northern winters and blistering southern summers.

That nearly four-decade legacy would end forever under President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal. The plan’s broader fiscal irresponsibility is clear — it hands wealthy people hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks while paring back or outright canceling scores of public services and investments in the nation’s future — but its true cruelty is easier to spot down in the details.

Trump’s budget deems LIHEAP “a lower-impact program…unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes” and calls for its extinction. Yet the small chunks of cash LIHEAP doles out to eligible families change the way people live — and keep some alive who would otherwise have died.

“Look at what happened before LIHEAP. People used kerosene heaters. People left their stoves on. And people died,” said Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association. “We created LIHEAP to stop that.”

Trump’s choice to cancel the program won’t make a splash in deficit terms. Helping those 6 million households last year cost taxpayers just $3.3 billion—less than one one-thousandth of total federal spending, and down dramatically from $5.1 billion in 2009 thanks to years of budget cuts.

But it will make life harder for millions, especially in states like Minnesota and Maine where drafty old houses battle unusually long and harsh winters.

“We hear stories regularly of people who are closing off parts of their home, not heating them at all, and just staying in a room or two because that’s all they can afford to heat,” said Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine State Housing Authority, which administers the federally-funded utility support program in the state. “Heat has a tendency to escape older homes, and Maine’s housing stock is considered among the oldest in the country.”

“We hear stories regularly of people who are closing off parts of their home, not heating them at all and just staying in a room or two because that’s all they can afford to heat.”

In Minnesota, too, the bulk of LIHEAP recipients live far from the urban core of the Twin Cities area. Heating costs are about one-quarter higher in those rural areas on up toward the Canadian border, state Department of Commerce spokeswoman Julia Miller said.

About 111,000 households have gotten an average of $500 in LIHEAP aid so far this winter there. Last year the program helped about 340,000 Minnesotans, including 29,401 children under age six and 46,877 elderly people — two populations at particular risk for hypothermia.

“I don’t know what those individuals would do” if the program disappeared, said Miller. “It’s an essential safety net to protect vulnerable Minnesotans from losing heat in the coldest months of the year. $500 is a considerable amount of money for vulnerable people.”

Miller might not want to guess, but it’s not hard to forecast what people would do if they lost the money they need to keep their home warm enough.

“People are going to die. How can you take this much money away from this group and not think some will die?”

“People are going to die. Someone will say ‘Oh that’s extremist,’ but how can you take this much money away from this group of people and not think people will die?” NEADA’s Wolfe said. “If you take away assistance from very poor families, some of them will have their heat shut off. Some will turn their heat down to unsafe levels. And some of them will die.”

While it seems like spring came early on much of the eastern seaboard, it’s still mid-winter in Maine. With some weeks still to go, Turcotte said, the state has already helped 63,989 people with their heating oil bills this winter. The average household receiving aid there survives on a total income of just $12,801 a year, she said.

If Trump kills LIHEAP for good, “people would have to look for other ways to heat their homes. Or, unfortunately, there may be some who can only keep part of their home warm,” said Turcotte. Charity already plays a role in supporting low-income Mainers through the winters, in church aid funds and TV telethons. But it’s hard to believe even the most generous hearts could conjure the roughly $20 million Turcotte’s agency has spent so far this winter through LIHEAP.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI) formally asked the White House to increase funding to LIHEAP last month, after significant cuts over the various budget compromises of the Obama era.

Collins did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s decision to not only ignore her request but target the program for elimination. Neither did Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) or Ron Johnson (R-WI), two other cold-state Republicans who may find themselves trapped between their party’s leader and their constituents’ survival.

If anyone is to stop Trump’s plan to end LIHEAP, Wolfe said, it will come down to people like those three. Lawmakers whose voters are more directly impacted will have to educate their colleagues who might scoff at the idea that ending the program means letting people die needlessly.

“You’ve got a population that’s got very little money, not able to work because of their age or their health, and this is the way we keep them in their apartments and keep them safe,” said Wolfe.

“If you withdraw that, some of them will die. But that doesn’t seem too important to them at the moment,” he said.

“He doesn’t know anybody like that. They don’t belong to Trump’s club.”