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Taking Care of Our Own: A Fall of Bi-Partisan Rallying on Behalf of LIHEAP

By Jake Brown

With the winter of 2012 fast approaching on the winds of already-especially chilly temperatures that only promise to grow colder as thermostats drop and heating bills sky-rocket, Bloomberg News in October shined a spotlight on among arguably the most vulnerable of these demographics sure to be affected- the Northeastern U.S.  Already plagued by the horrific damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy, millions of households throughout Eastern states running from New York and ravaged New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut all the way up through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine that warm their homes with heating oil, as Bloomberg reported, “will face record prices this winter as weather forecasters predict colder temperatures in the Northeast will drive up demand.”

Citing a comprehensive review by The Energy Information Administration, Business Week stated in their coverage of this impending crisis reported that “households will spend 19 percent more on average for heating oil and 15 percent more for natural gas from Oct. 1 to March 31, the period covered in its short- term energy and winter fuels outlook.”  An especially vulnerable spread of states – in light of the recent billions of dollars in damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in late October – and the affect that damage will have on raising fuel prices even higher than they were already heading in the short term.   According to the aforementioned EIA study, “while only 6 percent of U.S. homes use heating oil, 80 percent of families that use the fuel are clustered in the northeastern part of the country,” translating to “households relying on heating oil will spend an average of about $407 more this winter, a 19 percent increase over last year, as a result of higher prices and consumption. The average expenditures are expected to reach record levels.”

Taking swift action in their respective states to head off this perfect storm of misery with action from both the state, and more significantly, the Federal level, a bi-partisan coalition of Congressmen and Senators, beginning with New Hampshire Republican, Rep. Frank Guinta, brought to the attention of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius- in a letter he authored and published on his official Congressional website- underscored the fact that with winter weather fast approaching, “this program is extremely important to our state and region, I wanted to let you know about the strong bi-partisan effort in Congress to make sure this program is properly funded and to guarantee the dollars are released to help our families and neighbors during the fall and winter months…The reason why this is important is because we have seen LIHEAP funding reduced from $5.1 billion in FY09 to $3.5 billion in FY12.”

 

 

            Acting aggressively to protect the program’s funding, not just nationally, but specifically where the especially-vulnerable Northeast was concerned, Rep. Guinta added that “as a long time supporter, I recently signed onto Congressman Mike Michaud’s (D-ME) legislation as an original co-sponsor. His bill, HR 6533, the LIHEAP Stability Act, would protect states that are particularly dependent on heating oil, specifically ones in which 25 percent or more of the households use heating oil. Since almost 49 percent of New Hampshire homes rely on heating oil, our state would continue to receive at least FY2010 funding levels if the price of heating oil continues to increase for the 2012-2013 winter…The average U.S. household spent $2,298 to heat their homes using oil in 2011— compared to electricity at $957 and natural gas at $724. Given the cost increases of heating oil, families across New Hampshire are particularly hard hit by LIHEAP cuts.”

 

            US Senators were equally as strong in their advocating for greater security over the threat of LIHEAP funding levels dropping any further while temperatures rose, with the New England coalition that included New Hampshire Senators Kelly Ayotte (Republican) and Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat), and Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, all co-signing a letter sent months ahead of time in anticipation of just these sorts of plunging temperatures requesting that the White House maintain at a minimum current funding levels of $4.7 Billion.  In the letter to President Obama, the coalition of New England Senators argued that funding at any lower level “presents a real challenge for low income households” and promised to have nothing short of a “devastating impact…on seniors and low-income families.”

            Speaking specifically on her state’s behalf, retiring Republican Senator Olympia Snowe in her final appeal of many over her years of boldly spearheading the push in the Senate for increases in LIHEAP funding, relaying the urgent message from her home state that: “It is absolutely vital federal funding for the LIHEAP program is released well in advance of winter so Maine’s agencies have the time necessary to make allotments to our Mainers most in need. I strongly urge Secretary Sebelius to release these funds as quickly as possible to ensure Maine families can heat their homes during the approaching cold months.  In Congress, we must also move heaven and earth to prioritize funding for the program. With heating oil prices as high as $3.93 per gallon in Maine, the LIHEAP remains below the level it should be to ensure the most vulnerable Mainers can stay warm.”

From the state level, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley directed a letter to the attention of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting in light of the reality that her state’s families were expected to be paying a monthly heating bill that was 20% higher than 2011, that the Federal govt. release LIHEAP contingency funds “as quickly and at as high of a level as possible.”  With the increase translating to a total average heating cost of nearly $2500 per family for the coming winter, AG Coakley urgently noted that “this news could not come at a worse time.”  Quoting neighboring New Hampshire office of Energy and Planning head Celeste Lovett, the BU News Service revealed that her office was facing similar dilemma, where while her state would be in a position “to provide some benefits to the people who needed it,” the cold, stark reality of the shortage in Federal funding meant that as demand for assistance continued to climb, LIHEAP aid would not be “extended to as many families as in prior years.”  Emphasizing that now was the time for households potentially vulnerable to get ahead of the storm by signing up ASAP for “fuel assistance if you think you might have a hard time paying your energy bills… Let the states worry about funding; it’s important to be in the database.” 

 

Out in the Southwest, the state’s weatherization effort was boosted by the US Agriculture Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager’s announcement, as the Liberty County Vindicator reported, that “more than $4.4 million in funding announced today is being provided through USDA Rural Development’s Housing Preservation Grant program,” including three recipients in Texas that the paper reported “have been awarded over $236,000 to help low- and very-low income rural homeowners eliminate safety or health challenges…(including) Community Services, Inc. will receive $18,000 to assist 5 homeowners with leveraged funds from the DOE and LIHEAP Weatherization Programs for plumbing, electrical and structural repairs required to bring houses into code compliance and for energy saving measures.”  Emphasizing why this kind of grant would make a significant difference around the state, Undersecretary Tonsager explained that “for many rural residents, maintaining a home with basic features such as indoor plumbing and safe electrical wiring is often unaffordable.  This program supports basic repairs to improve living conditions for rural residents with extremely limited incomes.”

 

            Along with fighting for these traditional LIHEAP constituencies, Congress has begun advocating aggressively in the past few years – and continued to aggressively do so in the fall of 2012 – on behalf of a new and among the fastest rising demographics of new faces reaching out for LIHEAP assistance: that being the hundreds of thousands of returning US Veterans coming home from long tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Underscoring just how expansive the necessity of LIHEAP’s helping hand has become in recent years for the tens of thousands of US Servicemen returning home, the New York Times in a January, 2012 editorial painted a vivid picture of this reality with their report on the stark and staggering facts that “Veterans now make up 20 percent of all recipients of the aid, up from 12 percent four years ago… The number of low-income veterans receiving government assistance for their heating and cooling bills hit a new high last year… Over the last four years, the survey found, the number of low-income households with at least one military veteran receiving federal energy assistance rose by about 1.1 million households, to 1.78 million.”  The previously-quoted New Times paper added a month later in their own cover story that this increase represented an expansion of “over 150 percent during the past four years.”

 

As America has long touted the pledge ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ when its come to the nations’ millions of veterans, to that end, in spite of the gridlock that has plagued Washington DC’s spending priorities the past few years, one area where a harmonious chorus of agreement has emerged among lawmakers is highlighting the importance LIHEAP plays in the lives of these veterans.  Consider the Boston Globe’s report at the top of 2012 that “LIHEAP is not just a service to the households struggling in these difficult economic times, but it is a vital resource to our elderly and our veterans…LIHEAP also serves 1.78 million veterans in this country annually.”  Highlighting their home state as a poignant example, the Globe added that “in Massachusetts, 41,297 veterans and/or the families of active servicemen and women who are deployed make up 20 percent of the households who are recipients of federal help to heat their homes. We see this percentage rise every year, as it was only 12 percent last year.”

 

With an ever-growing coalition of bi-partisan politicians underscoring the importance LIHEAP plays in veterans and their families throughout congressional districts around the country, Pennsylvania Congressman Lou Barletta told the Times News in 2011 that in spite of the program’s availability, “many veterans who might be eligible for LIHEAP don’t know they can take advantage of the program, but they absolutely can. We need to help our veterans and seniors stay warm in the winter. We can’t let them slip through the cracks. We need to fund LIHEAP.”  Concurring, neighboring Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown confirmed that around his state, “many veterans rely heavily on…non-veteran specific government benefits like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps individuals and families pay their energy bills.” 

Rallying to stand up in Washington on behalf of these millions of veterans with the same passion they’d first defended the nation in the course of earning such benefits, now-retired Senior Congressman Barney Frank (MA) that same month went so far as to single out LIHEAP as among “the MAIN federal program that provides home energy assistance to…Veterans.”  Frank went on to add that along with the Post-traumatic psychological stresses plaguing many of these soldiers, they were additionally battling on the economic home-front where, according to Frank, “families fortunate enough to receive funding at all, experienced on average, a 26% cut in their household LIHEAP grant from 2011 to 2012…Despite the fact that a growing number of Americans need this program to heat their homes during winter, the funding of the program below its authorized level has meant that only 20% of those eligible are currently receiving assistance.” 

Fellow Massachusetts Congressman and longtime LIHEAP advocate, the above-quoted Rep. Ed Markey rallied, his troops on Capitol Hill this past winter specifically on behalf of veterans and their families, noting that time was of the essence to fully fund the program “with a cold snap hitting the Northeast and international unrest sending oil prices higher, several House Democrats, low-income energy assistance groups and military veterans will call for an increase in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, this Wednesday at a Capitol Hill. He was joined by: Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.)”

 

            Looking toward the winter of 2012 and beyond, among political parties state and nation-wide, the consensus appears to be an ever-growing one that the LIHEAP program warrants being prioritized as highly as the demographics it serves.  From the elderly and disabled to this country’s millions of returning veterans and on to the aforementioned victims of skyrocketing heating oil costs, The White House recently signaled it was beginning to hear the sirens sounding regarding the program’s vital necessity and rising demand, announcing to that end in their FY2013 budget that “the President’s Budget provides $3 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help struggling families make ends meet by offsetting some of their home heating and cooling costs. While the cost of natural gas — which is the heating fuel most LIHEAP households use — has not risen in recent years, the price of heating oil has been on the rise. The additional $450 million over the 2012 request reflects expected home heating costs for winter 2012-2013.”

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