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Again, the Poor go Begging for Heat

The Boston Globe Joseph P. Kennedy II and Marty Meehan A couple of weeks ago, parts of our state got three feet of snow. Many children were happy they didn’t have school. Others broke out their cross-country skis. Thousands more were caught in traffic jams and had flights delayed. But there’s another group of our fellow citizens for whom the early winter storm meant one thing: They were cold. They were cold when they awoke and cold when they went to bed. And all because of a simple fact -- they don’t have enough money to pay for heat. This problem isn’t new. Nor is the annual battle to adequately finance the federal fuel fund to heat the homes of vulnerable people. So once again, winter’s here and 15 million households -- 75 percent of those eligible -- will never receive a dime. Those who do simply won’t get enough to make it stretch through winter. While there are scant resources for fuel assistance, which in Washington-speak is known as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, plenty of money is being passed around in Congress for other priorities. Like $148 billion for reducing taxes on dividends and capital gains for wealthy Americans. Or $29 billion in liability protection handed out to big oil and chemical companies who have contaminated ground water. Or $139 billion in profits for drug companies. These expenses, coming on top of tens of billions in reconstruction dollars for Iraq and funding for 9,000 pork projects, are causing the deficit to balloon to over $400 billion. But when it comes to meeting the poor’s energy needs, they say there’s no money in the till. That’s wrong. Why should the poor go tin cup in hand to the government for fuel assistance when the government makes money from increased tax revenues from oil and gas companies every time energy prices rise? When energy profits soar, the government makes money from in-kind contributions from oil and gas companies that drill on federal land. In short, the federal government makes money on rising energy prices, but the poor pay the highest cost of all -- the fear of cold weather and a long season of suffering. What we’re asking for is simple: A permanent funding level of at least $2 billion for federal fuel assistance with automatic regional hikes based on specific degree-day needs. In other words, when a particular area of the country gets battered by severe winter weather, then the resources will be there to cushion the price shock on the poor. At the onset of this winter, demand is up for federal fuel assistance as more and more people are pressed to pay for heat. Many households dependent on the program still have heating debt from last winter to pay off. The combination of elevated natural gas prices, rising oil costs, high unemployment, and the arrival of winter’s freeze is building the perfect storm of another deadly season for low-income families. The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, which administers federal fuel aid for Lawrence, Methuen, Andover, North Andover, Reading, and North Reading, is seeing 100 new applicants a week and is booked through March. Furthermore, the agency already had approximately 8,000 households that were eligible for fuel assistance last year who will probably be back this winter. Fuel assistance agencies across the Commonwealth are experiencing a similar crisis. In Boston, Citizens Energy Corporation kicked off its oil heat program earlier this month with a surge of calls for half-price heating oil, many of them from federal fuel assistance recipients who are worried about keeping warm once their federal aid runs out. At current funding levels -- 10 percent less than last year -- it will run out sooner than later. The energy bill recently passed by the House “authorizes” an increase in fuel assistance funding to $3.4 billion. Of course, neither the House nor Senate was going to spend anywhere near that on fuel assistance. This is the classic Washington shell game -- get a big headline and a pat on the back for authorizing millions of new spending for a popular initiative and then cynically fall far short of the authorization when it comes time to actually spend the money. The recent catchall spending bill passed by the House includes $1.7 billion in regular fuel assistance funding along with $100 million in so-called “emergency” funds. While this is no small sum, testimony earlier this year by the National Consumer Law Center makes it clear that this is not enough. According to the center, the fuel assistance program’s purchasing power in 1981 was $3,86 billion in 2003 dollars; in 1985 it was $3.62 billion. Yet the best the White House and Congress can do this year is budget less than half the purchasing power the program had 20 years ago. Every day that we delay action on adequately funding fuel assistance puts poor households more at risk from a long, cold winter, not just this year but in every cold season yet to come.

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