Low-income resident s left out in the cold

This was originally published at Spare Change News. (Sorry no online version is available at the SCN web site at this time)

Last fall, Massachusetts legislators on both federal and state levels, concerned about how high energy prices, advocated for increased heating bill assistance, urging Congress to allot $5.1 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). But at years end – in the final moments of the 2005 Senate session – legislators slashed the amount considerably, to $2.16 billion.

That figure, according to energy assistance officials, is far less than the 4.5 billion that is needed to keep poor families warm, and the more than 14,000 thousand Boston resident eligible for aid, according to local organizations, will be left, quite literally, out in the cold.

“It’s devastating,” said Kathy Tobin, the energy programs director for ABCD. “To households in the Boston area with vital needs, this is catastrophic.”

According to Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) the poorest families can receive a maximum of $765 for energy expenses, or enough for about one tank of heating oil. The average household uses three to four tanks during the winter months. Advocates of LIHEAP, insist that this level of assistance has been stagnant for over a decade. “If you adjust for inflation, the purchasing power of LIHEAP funding is only a little over half of what it was in 1982,” said Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy on a report on his Web site.

In fact, despite the rise of energy costs, the 2005 federal budget actually allotted more money than did the budget for 2006. Yet, the average heating bill has gone up considerably, 48 percent for those who rely on natural gas and 32 percent for those who use oil.

Larry Chretien, director of Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, reached by phone, said that the federal assistance provided today provides residents only about one third of the heating oil, than it did about 15 years ago. “If you do the math, heating assistance has not only not kept up with the pace of inflation, as well as the rising cot of energy,’’Chretien.said.

While options are few for needy households, and oil the country’s largest oil companies – who are recording record profits – Boston residents have received some help from the state legislature, which having allocated $20 million in emergency heating aid, the largest figure ever in the history of the state, said Tobin.

In the months leading up to the winter, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini along with House speaker Salvatore Dimasi introduced new legislation to combat the soaring energy costs. Home Energy Assistance & Tax Relief (H.E.A.T.), a program of tax credits and various incentives designed to help Massachusetts energy consumers deal with their heating bills. “This bill provides immediate relief from high heating bills and encourages consumers to cash-in on long term savings with incentives for buying products to make their homes more energy efficient,” said Travaglini in a Nov. 18, press release.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Mitt Romney in November.

Travaglini’s communications director, Ann Dufresne, said that the Senate President has been very committed in coming up with legislation that would help the lower and middle class families deal with their rising heating bills. “Those are the people who are truly suffering,” she said.

“The State really stepped up on this issue, in the early winter,” said Tobin. Massachusetts Senators, Kennedy and John Kerry have also among those who advocated increased aid for needy families.

Help has also come in the form of charitable organizations, such as The United Way, and foreign governments, including the Venezuelan government who announced that it would provide 12 million gallons of heating oil at a discounted rate to families in New England "We want to help the poorest communities in the US," said Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez, who was quoted in The Christian Science Monitor in November. "There are people who die from the cold in winter in the US," he added.

The deal, which was brokered by State Rep. Bill Delahunt and former representative Joe Kennedy, has been criticized by some, who oppose Chavez. “"Leave it to the congressman ... and a Kennedy to close the deal," read a Nov. 30 Wall Street Journal Editorial.

But Chretien said he thinks Boston residents will buy the discounted oil. “When people’s assistance runs out, I think they will take advantage.”

The discounted Venezuelan oil, while helpful, is still unattainable for some poor families, since in order to get the discount, they will need to come up with cash, which is not always easy to do, Tobin said. “They just don’t have the money.”

“Families have to make some tough choices,” Tobin added. “In some cases they have to decide whether to buy food or to turn the thermostat on.”

Another problem, according to Chretien, is that residents have been using dangerous methods to heat their house, such as using their stove, or dangerous space heaters. “Were finding that when prices are high, there are fires, people are not eating, or taking their drugs … even homelessness, he said.

So far the winter has been relatively mild in Boston – which has been a break for many residents. “Were damn lucky,” said Chretien, who is quick to remind everyone that it is a “long winter,” and just one or two bad cold fronts could drive cost to a breaking point.

Most of us can manage the rising energy costs,” said Chretein. “But for some, it’s the straw that breaks the camels back.”