Just in time for the cold weather and holiday season, states have learned that Congress cut $1.2 billion from a program to provide heating and cooling assistance to low-income families.
The large spending bill that Congress approved this month for 2012 contained about $3.5 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Advocates of LIHEAP had hoped Congress would fund the program at its 2010 level of $5.1 billion; it was funded at $4.7 billion for 2011, an amount that several governors urged Congress to maintain for this year. President Obama's budget proposal would have cut LIHEAP funding by nearly 50 percent to $2.6 billion, so the congressional figure came down somewhere in the middle.
"It could have been worse," says Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association , an organization that represents state LIHEAP directors. "We are relieved that the Congress did not accept the far deeper cuts."
Still, some say the timing of the cuts couldn't be worse."At a time when employment and income remain stagnant, high home energy prices create unmanageable burdens for so many families, and applications for energy assistance are at record high levels, a $1.2 billion cut to LIHEAP is unconscionable," says John Howat, of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
The program is especially important to the Northeast, as 75 percent of the heating oil used in the United States is used in that area, says Wolfe. New York got the most money from the block grant program in 2011, $496 million, followed by Pennsylvania with $280 million and Illinois with $239 million, according to this state-by-state list .
The program also helps low income households pay for air conditioning. Warm weather states such as Florida, for example, got $108 million and Texas $179 million from the program in 2011.
All told, some 9 million households rely on LIHEAP, with an increasing number of military families getting help. A recent survey by Wolfe's organization found that veteran households account for nearly 35 percent of the total growth in the program between 2008 and 2011. Some 1.8 million veterans get assistance, up from nearly 696,000 in 2008. Wolfe says the increase shows "the program is reaching some of the nation's poorest families, including those who have served their nation in times of peace as well as war."