House Nearly Doubles Home Heating Aid to Poor

The House voted Wednesday to nearly double federal money to help poor people cope with record home heating bills expected this winter.

Spending for the government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program would rise to $5.1 billion. The increase was included in a large stopgap budget bill the House approved to keep the government running after Sept. 30. The $630 billion-plus measure now goes to the Senate, which is expected to send the legislation to President Bush for his signature.

About 2 million more families are expected to get fuel aid this winter, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state-run low-income energy assistance programs. About 5.8 million families got help last winter.

The national average cost to heat a home with oil this winter will be $2,524, up from $1,962 last winter, the group said. The Northeast, with its cold winters and reliance on oil heat, is particularly vulnerable to rising energy costs.

Lawmakers from cold-weather states have been pressing hard for additional money, warning that many poor people could face dire decisions about whether to buy food or heat their homes this winter.

"With energy prices out of control, we have to help people pay for soaring heating costs," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "More people than ever are going to need LIHEAP assistance and these additional funds will hopefully ensure that anyone who needs help can get it. Nobody should have to choose between putting food on the table and heating their homes."

The extra money could enable states to increase benefit levels as well as help more people. Record-high crude oil prices have sent home heating and cooling costs soaring this year.

The Energy Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, projected last month that natural gas and heating oil will be at record highs this winter.

A slumping economy producing many more people without jobs has made the problem worse, lawmakers and heating aid advocates have warned.