As winter's coldest months close in, the government today released more than $845 million in home heating cost subsidies to help older adults and low-income residents stay warm in their homes.
Funding to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was sliced from $4.7 billion last year to $2.57 billion for 2012, cutting off thousands of people from receiving home heating aid at a time when requests for assistance reached unprecedented levels.
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The $845 million in block grant funds released today by the Department of Health and Human Services is in addition to $1.7 billion released to states since October 2011. The new funds bring the total to 2.581 billion in LIHEAP block funds for fiscal year 2012.
"Even as the economy shows signs of improvement, many Americans are struggling to make ends meet," George Sheldon, HHS acting assistant secretary for children and families, said in a statement.
"We are making funds available today to help vulnerable families and seniors pay their heating bills and stay warm during this holiday season and into early 2012."
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers introduced legislation that would restore last year's funding levels — the Senate may take it up in January. Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said they will do everything they can to make sure no American goes cold this winter.
They noted that heating oil prices are about one-third higher in inflation-adjusted terms than when the assistance program started some 30 years ago.
"This is a program that can make the difference between life and death," Snowe said.
More households need help
Last year, LIHEAP provided assistance to a record 8.9 million households, an increase of 54 percent since 2008. For the 2012 fiscal year, 9.4 million households are projected to receive aid, officials say.
Of those recipients, 20 percent are veterans, a substantial increase from the 12 percent seeking assistance since 2008, officials say. Most of those veterans, 64 percent, are age 60 or over; 36 percent are under 60.
At a time when unemployment is high and "more are entering the ranks of poverty, we will not accept significant reductions" in funding to LIHEAP, Sanders said in the news conference. "We don't want to see people [faced] with the choice to heat their homes for winter or buy food ... or prescription drugs."
In New England and in other areas where heating oil is the primary fuel used, residents can expect to shell out the most they've ever paid to heat their homes, according to a new AARP report based on government data.
Households headed by people 65-plus will likely pay some $300 more over last year's cost of $3,058. Ann McLarty Jackson, who coauthored the report for AARP's Public Policy Institute, says average heating oil costs "are forecast to be higher than for any winter on record."
"Older households using fuel oil will face a greater financial burden in heating their homes than those heating with natural gas or electricity," she says.
Georgia funds already spent
In Georgia, community organizer groups that distribute LIHEAP payments to families announced on the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority website in November that federal funds had already been depleted. LIHEAP is offered to older people and people with disabilities first, starting Nov. 1, then to the public on Dec. 1.
"Funds are already spent. Thousands of families will not receive financial assistance to curtail the burden of paying heating bills," the website says.
Typically, LIHEAP funds are allocated among 12,000 to 20,000 needy families and older people in Fulton County and Atlanta. But due to budget cuts, only 6,000 households were slated to get help this winter — that is, before the additional HHS funds were made available.
The situation can turn dangerous, even deadly, when heating is cut off because of failure to pay the bills. Jerry McKim, LIHEAP director for Iowa, says his state got $71 million in aid in fiscal year 2011, which helped about 96,000 households with an average benefit of $565. This winter, he says, the average benefit was expected to be about $285.
"Most of my mornings are spent talking to desperate people," he says. "I just talked to one older lady who keeps her thermostat at 58 degrees."
A public health problem
"The consequences of unaffordable energy are dire," McKim adds. "This is more than an energy issue; this is a serious public health matter. This program is not the place to be [exercising] fiscal restraint."
Prices for other types of heating, such as natural gas and electricity, will remain fairly steady, according to the AARP report.In the mid-Atlantic and south central regions, a typical household's natural gas bill for the heating season will creep up by about $11 this winter, but it will drop by about $5 for residents in the upper Midwest, the report said.
The cost will drop off slightly or stay about the same in most other regions across the United States.
Winter heating costs tend to be a greater burden on older low-income households, even though they tend to use less heating fuel than other groups, because a greater percentage of their income goes toward such costs, the report said.
Go to the LIHEAP website If you're interested in applying for home heating assistance.
Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.