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Fuel Assistance Advocates Speak Out Against Proposed Cuts

BOSTON -- Citizens Energy Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy II joined with U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano and Jim McGovern at an East Boston press conference today to speak out against cuts in the federal fuel assistance program proposed by President Obama.

The press conference was held at the home of Joe and Katherine Oliveri, whose federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefit would be cut in half under the White House budget proposal, which seeks to slash fuel aid from $5.1 billion to $2.7 billion.

“I have tremendous admiration for President Obama and we welcome him to Boston today,” said Kennedy, referring to the president’s appearance later in the day at a Dorchester school. “But we want him to know that cuts in fuel assistance don’t hurt the LIHEAP budget, they hurt families like the Oliveris.”

“These cuts were proposed as the result of a compromise between the administration and the Republicans in the House,” added Kennedy, whose non-profit company provides free heating oil to families who have exhausted their federal benefit. “The first thing they put on the chopping block was fuel assistance. At the same time, they protected the richest people in this country from any kind of tax give-back –- a trillion-dollar deal to preserve tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. This is just wrong.”

LIHEAP serves as a lifeline to over 8 million American households who are struggling to keep up with record energy prices. Heating oil costs now stand at a ten-year seasonal high. In Massachusetts, applications for fuel assistance surged from 180,000 last year to 260,000 this year. Nationwide, the cuts could leave as many as 3.5 million low-income households out in the cold at a time that only one in five households eligible for the benefit ever receives it.

“Fuel assistance helps to balance our budget,” said Katherine Oliveri, 82, who has lived her entire life in her family home on Princeton Street. “A drastic cut would be very detrimental. It would mean not having money for medications, food, and other necessities.” The Oliveris, who are grandparents celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary these week, depend entirely on Social Security for their retirement income.

With heating oil prices near record highs, their $650 fuel assistance allotment this year –- about a 30 percent cut from last year’s $900 benefit -- paid for less than one full tank of oil. If the proposed cuts go through, they would receive just over $300 next year, barely enough for one-third of a tank of fuel.

“Oil prices are rising, the economy is still recovering and many families are really struggling to make ends meet,” said Congressman Capuano. The 8th District representative held up an oil bill from a constituent who paid $540 for 139 gallons of oil. The average heating oil household consumes three to four tanks of fuel a year –- about $4,000 a season.

“Here is a statement from the Social Security Administration showing that the average Social Security payment is $1,075,” said Capuano. “How can a family struggling to get by on Social Security afford to stay warm? The LIHEAP program has helped so many people stretch their home heating budget through the winter and this year is no exception. I am extremely disappointed that such deep cuts have been proposed for this vital program and I hope that as next year’s budget is finalized, funding for LIHEAP can be preserved.”

“This is not a protest against the President, it’s a protest against LIHEAP cuts,” said Congressman Jim McGovern. “LIHEAP is a critical program for thousands of Massachusetts families. As the economy continues to struggle, this is exactly the wrong time to cut LIHEAP. I am proud to stand with Joe Kennedy and others in this fight. I will continue to press for full funding for LIHEAP and other programs that help the most vulnerable of our neighbors.”

Congressman Ed Markey, the Dean of the Massachusetts delegation, issued a statement calling for full funding of LIHEAP in the coming fiscal year and urged House Republicans not to block emergency fuel assistance funding for the rest of the current fiscal year. As of March, only $4.1 billion of the $5.1 billion program has been released to help families in need –- a 20 percent cut this season.

“LIHEAP isn’t just a line on a ledger, it is a life-line to thousands of families in Massachusetts and millions of families nationwide,” said Markey. “House Republicans should not be allowed to zero out emergency LIHEAP funding for the rest of the fiscal year. And in the coming fiscal year, we must continue to fully fund LIHEAP as oil prices continue to rise and the effects of the recession are still having a chilling effect on the pocketbook of millions of American families.”

“At ABCD we have seen fuel assistance applications soar in the last few years. We used to serve about 15,000 families every year. This year we have 24,000 applications and people are still lining up for help,” said John Drew, president of Action for Boston Community Development, the largest federal fuel-assistance agency in New England.

“The harsh proposed 50 percent cut to fuel assistance means millions across America will be at terrible risk. In addition, proposed cuts to the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), the nations’ antipoverty program, will undermine fuel assistance delivery and many other programs that serve the poor. What kind of society do we live in where we force our most vulnerable residents to choose between heat, food, rent and medicine?”

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