For millions of low-income Americans, it’s going to be a long, very cold winter. Fuel prices have skyrocketed ? according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the average cost of home heating this winter will be a whopping 24 percent higher than last year. To make matters worse, the number of people living in poverty, who are especially likely to need help paying their energy bills, rose last year by 1.3 million to 36 million people, or 12.5 percent of the population. Yet Congress is underfunding the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP helps poor households ? many of which include people who are elderly or disabled ? pay their heating bills during the coldest months of winter). About 30 million households qualify for help, but a lack of funding means only about one out of every seven families receives assistance. And initial sampling shows that this year, with temperatures dropping, fuel prices soaring and more Americans living in poverty, requests for assistance could reach an all-time high.
Energy costs can be devastating for low-income families. According to a survey conducted by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, families assisted by LIHEAP "spend three times as much of their income on energy costs as middle-income families." The survey also found a quarter of people the program serves skipped medical care or paying their rent or their mortgage at least once because of energy bills. One out of every five said they skipped meals because they were forced to "use food money to pay a utility bill."
President Bush has shown a decided lack of dedication to getting poor Americans funding for heat. In his first budget, for the 2002 fiscal year, Bush actually tried to cut LIHEAP funding by $300 million as compared with the previous year, despite higher unemployment and a colder winter. While energy costs have soared, "funding for LIHEAP and other energy assistance programs grew 7 percent under the Bush administration, barely matching inflation." When LIHEAP started 22 years ago, the program helped about 7 million families. Today, it only helps about 5 million.