Soaring fuel prices are creating a crisis among low-income people and senior citizens who can't afford to heat their homes, say local agencies that distribute federal heating subsidies. "This is a scary, scary winter. I don't know what folks are going to do," says Debbie Hambly of Rhode Island's East Bay Community Action Program. The average one-time, $325 grant there buys 100 gallons of heating oil enough for about two weeks, she says. Applications for heating aid are up and more working poor are seeking help, Hambly and other officials say. Without more federal funds, says Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, "we'll see an awful lot of people in difficult situations."
The federal program helps users of all home-heating fuels. The Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Energy Department's analytical arm, says the average U.S. household will pay $986 this winter, up 10.9% from 2006-07. Residential heating oil is expected to average $3.23 a gallon, a 30% increase over last winter, the EIA says. About 7% of U.S. homes use heating oil, mostly in the Northeast. Propane is up almost 50 cents a gallon, to nearly $2.50, from a year ago, and average household natural gas costs are likely to be 7% higher.
Local agencies distribute federal funds from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to those meeting income limits. About 5.87 million households received assistance in fiscal year 2007. Last month, President Bush vetoed a spending bill that included $2.4 billion for the program. That was $480 million more than he requested and would have increased spending $250 million from fiscal year 2007. More than 30 U.S. senators want to add $1 billion in this year's budget; negotiations continue.
Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.