Cuts to Fed Heat Aid Could Leave Many in the Cold

Delores Qualls of Brockton, Mass., lost her job as a nonprofit coordinator last year and with the frigid temperatures of a New England winter looming, she's among ten of thousands in the southern part of the Bay State receiving aid to keep the heat on.

The latest aid -- $170 -- will cover her energy costs until mid-January.

"It's allowed me to take that $170 and use it elsewhere. You know, maybe buy food or pay a different bill," said Qualls.

Organizations across the country tasked with providing heating assistance to the needy fear many others will be left in the cold this year due to drastic cuts in federal aid.

Under the Obama administration's 2012 budget, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) would receive just $2.6 billion, down from the $4.7 billion allotted last year.

In fiscal year 2011, 8.9 million households received federal energy assistance. Heading into 2012, it's projected the need will increase to 9.4 million.

The roughly 50 percent reduction in LIHEAP aid brings funding back to the level it was before the energy price spike of 2008. The administration's recommendation for reduced funding was based in part on energy price forecasts predicting more moderate increases in costs heading into winter 2011-2012.

Community activists say the impact of reductions at the local level -- combined with rising energy costs -- is severe.

"The fact that oil is a dollar more a gallon this year is really shaping up to be a catastrophic disaster," said Jonathan Carlson, executive director of Self Help, Inc., a nonprofit that helps at-risk families link to needed community services. "Last year, we were funded at $14 million, and this year we're just under six so it's almost a 60 percent cut at a time when our clients are the neediest they've ever been."

Nearly 20,000 households applied for fuel assistance through Self Help, Inc. this past year and the numbers are expected to increase in 2012 regardless of the huge cut in funding.

"It's the most basic need to stay warm. It's those kinds of decisions -- do I take my medication? Do I heat my home? Do I eat properly? -- Those are the kinds of decisions that are being made at this point," Carlson said.

A bipartisan effort to restore funding to the federal program is underway on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are urging quick action. The LIHEAP Protection Act was introduced by Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

"It's a very paltry sum that the president is proposing given the dimension of the needs of this program and the cost of energy that continues to rise," Snowe said.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Sanders read letters from Vermonters who fear they'll lose their heat this winter. He said the state's LIHEAP benefit is 45 percent less this year than last, equaling just $474 per family down from $866.