photo by SimonP at en.wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons
By Maya Wiley
After super-storm Sandy battered the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, 2.4 million people did not have power or heat for five straight days. As temperatures began to plummet, 266,000 customers in Long Island’s Nassau County were still without power on November 4th. Some people actually died while trying to heat their homes with propane grills and other desperate measures.
Americans suffering in the cold are a disturbing reminder that all too many Americans suffer through the winter without enough heat, thanks not just to storms, but to poverty. And just as we all have united to help those in need after Hurricane Sandy, we must also remember the help we give to so many Americans who work hard and can’t make ends meet.
With President Obama’s re-election victory on November 6th, will poor Americans be in the cold this winter or will they get warmth from the White House?
Whether the retiree on a fixed income whose utility bills shoot up or a family with young children trying to stretch their meager earnings to cover food and heating to the next paycheck, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, helps low-income families stay warm in the hard winter months. To be eligible, folks have to be at or below 150% of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of their state’s median income. For a family of three, 150% of poverty equals a combined income of about $28,600. Republican Governors like the program as much as Democrats. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced in September that 267,273 New Jersey families would receive a supplemental LIHEAP. Praising the program, Governor Christie said “the LIHEAP program is yet another tool that benefits…New Jerseyans.” Not only are most of the folks who receive help heating their homes poor, they are often elderly, children and/or disabled. The federal government distributes money to the states, who then distribute dollars to social service agencies that find and support poor families to heat or cool their homes.
But struggling families may be out in the cold. The President supported freezing out the frail in the past. In 2011 Obama threatened to cut it by $3 billion in his fiscal year 2012 budget proposal. In the end, Congress and the White House reduced LIHEAP funding by 25 percent. The federal government doled out $4.7 billion for heating assistance in fiscal 2011; the 2012 allotment is $3.5 billion. Nearly 9 million households received assistance in 2011, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, a Washington group that advocates for household energy subsidy programs. These households received an average benefit of $417 per year.
At the Center for Social Inclusion, our analysis predicts that 690,000 Americans will be out in the cold thanks to cuts, 44% of them white and about half of them will be the President’s base of political support — Blacks and Latinos (49%).
This is quite literally a life and death issue for Americans. Data from the US National Center for Health Statistics for 2001-2007 shows that on average, 7,200 Americans die each day during the months of December, January, February and March, compared to the average 6,400 who die daily during the rest of the year. On this basis, there were 95,000 “excess” deaths during the 121 days in the cold months (December to March, assuming a non-leap year).
In these hard economic times, more Americans need help, not less. LIHEAP helped about 8.3 million households in fiscal year 2010, up from 7.7 million and 5.8 million during the previous two years, and experts expect eligible applications to rise to 8.9 million this year. And prices are high. A gallon of heating oil currently goes for $3.83, up more than 50 cents from this time last year and the highest price since 1990, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
It isn’t right. President Obama should use his power to persuade Congress to heat American homes.
Read our latest report: Falling off the Fiscal Cliff: Race, Opportunity and Sequestration