Editorial: Winter is far colder for some than for others
If New Hampshire’s congressional delegation needs a reason to vote for the new federal budget agreement reached this week, here’s one: Vote for it, and the amount of money set aside to help poor people in New Hampshire pay their heating bills this winter won’t be quite as miserly as it might have been otherwise.
This is what passes for good news out of Washington these days. Advocates for needy families were worried that automatic “sequestration” budget cuts were going to make a bad situation worse; now, it seems, in a particularly frigid week, that has been averted.
At issue is LIHEAP – the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It’s among the most basic types of assistance the federal government makes available, but it’s not universally championed in Congress because some states are obviously bigger users of the program than others.
New Hampshire uses the money to help households unable to pay their heating bills during the winter. The program also provides emergency help when eligible residents are running out of fuel. And families facing the threat of disconnection can receive grants to pay their bills and stop a shut-off.
But federal heating assistance money has been shrinking for several years. In the winter of 2008-09, for instance, the state received $51 million, with which it was able to help more than 44,000 people. Participants got an average benefit of $929.
That was the last time the state was able to give a really meaningful heating assistance benefit to those in need. Since then, the state’s share of the federal program has fallen precipitously, though the cost of heating fuel has not. Last winter, New Hampshire got $24 million and used it to help 37,000 people; the average benefit was $732. For this winter, the state has certified 20,522 residents as eligible for help; so far it has been promised $22.1 million.
If the state got more money, it could expand the pool of eligible residents, increase the size of benefits or some of both. Most important, says Celeste Lovett, the state fuel assistance program manager, is for potential clients to sign up through their local Community Action Program office so officials know who’s out there and might be in need.
Assuming the new federal budget deal is approved, New Hampshire’s delegation should work hard to make sure as much of that money as possible is set aside for fuel assistance. But perhaps equally important would be this: working on a longer-term plan to help needy families switch from heating with oil to something less pricey and less subject to roller-coaster pricing. Switching from oil to natural gas or even stoves that burn renewable and locally-produced wood pellets could help household budgets tremendously. But the conversion isn’t free, and federal tax incentives are little help to low-income residents.
In the meantime, many households, including some with young children and disabled or elderly members, won’t have enough money to stay warm this winter. Local welfare offices and charitable organizations are too strapped to begin to make up the difference. But even in this era of budget cuts, it makes no economic or moral sense, to allow one’s fellow Americans to shiver or freeze.
The members of Congress from New Hampshire sounded the alarm about the real harm to home-heating assistance that would come from the sequester cuts. But even with those averted, it will be an unnecessarily difficult winter for too many of their constituents.