White House Seeks to Reduce Program Providing Energy Assistance to the Poor


Two weeks after President Bush vetoed a children's health insurance bill claiming he wants to put poor children first, the White House is threatening to veto legislation to boost funding for a program that helps low-income families pay their heating bills.

According to Reuters, about 30 million low-income American households will be left in the cold because of a lack of funding for the program titled Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Reuters said LIHEAP has enough funding to cover 16 percent of the 38 million poor households eligible for the program. Despite higher home-heating costs, the administration wants to cut the program's budget even more.

"This is compassionate conservatism, boys and girls," CNN's Jack Cafferty said in a Monday commentary. "No heat for the poor people: starting to sound familiar, isn't it? No money for kids' health insurance, no money to help poor families pay their heating bills, but President Bush wants $190 billion additional for 2008 for his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Reuters said LIHEAP's current budget of $2.16 billion is only $300 million more than it was when the program was created by Congress in 1981--not nearly enough to keep up with inflation.

The proposed cut also comes ahead of a winter when fuel costs are expected to increase 10 percent for the average American household. Prices for home heating oil, which heats 32 percent of homes in the Northeast, are projected to be 28 percent higher, costing the average family $402 more than the $1,834 it paid last year for heating oil.

"These record prices will place a significant burden on low and moderate income families this winter," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

That burden falls disproportionately on the poor. NEADA says low-income families pay an average of 14.6 percent of their income for energy, compared to 3.2 percent for non-low-income families.

For LIHEAP households, the burden is even greater--20.2 percent--forcing poorer families into an untenable choice a Boston Globe column described as "heat or eat" dilemma.

Deborah Frank of the Grow Clinic for Children and Joseph P. Kennedy II of Citizens Energy Corp., said that while both rich and poor families increase their expenditures on home fuel during the winter, poor families offset this cost through decreasing food purchases, with an average 10 percent decrease in caloric intake.

"Parents know that children can freeze to death more quickly than they starve to death, and so most decrease food purchases first to pay for heat," they said.

Such choices, they said, "wreak havoc on the health of children."

Frank and Kennedy said the Bush administration's proposed budget this year would cut LIHEAP by 44 percent compared with funding just two years ago. That is despite the fact that the federal government collected $10 billion dollars in royalties from oil and gas companies in fiscal 2006.

"Policy makers should pledge to fully fund LIHEAP, at the $5.1 billion level for which it is authorized, support additional consumer shut-off protections, and avoid unnecessary budgetary trade-offs that put already disadvantaged children at risk," they argued. "These steps would help ensure that America's children do not suffer through the freezing temperatures of winter."

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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