Winter, prices, demand chill fuel-aid capacity; ABCD calls for $2.5b hike Congress

With a “perfect storm” of harsh conditions hitting low-income, working families, children, and seniors this year – the coldest winter in 25 years, fuel prices 50 percent higher than last year, and a severe recession with massive job losses – ABCD and other fuel assistance programs see a crisis in the making as bitter mid-February weather bears down on the Northeast.

More than 200,000 Massachusetts fuel assistance recipients have exhausted or nearly exhausted their benefits and have nowhere to turn.

We are grateful to the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, particularly Senator Kerry and Congressman Markey, for their leadership in calling for the release of emergency fuel aid funds last month. But that recent allocation bought only a week or two of additional fuel for the poorest families in Massachusetts. We have a huge segment of the population – our most vulnerable children, working families, older residents – at terrible risk.

We need Congress to immediately increase fuel assistance funding nationwide by at least $2.5 billion to meet the escalating need for help to survive extremely frigid weather in the Northern states this winter. The help we are able to provide at the current funding level pays only a small percentage of a family’s total heating needs in this difficult year. Funding for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) must be increased to meet these needs.

Given the economic conditions that working and low-income families struggle against, and the slow pace of recovery, it is imperative that the LIHEAP allocation for next year be fully funded to include that $2.5 billion increase.

ABCD’s fuel-assistance applications are up 20 percent this year from a high of 20,000 applications in 2009 and the increased demand is expected to continue. As they battle job loss and economic recession, people who never had to ask for help before are now lining up to apply for fuel aid.

At a time when individuals and institutions are rewarding themselves with outrageous bonuses, why should the most vulnerable in our society pay the price of a harsh economy and a dangerously cold winter? Why should our children and working mothers and fathers, our retired veterans and other seniors who worked hard all their lives, be at risk for hypothermia or use dangerous space heaters or kerosene stoves as they struggle to stay warm? Ten percent of the bonus pool of one of Wall Street’s major investment funds could pay the heating bills of all those needing fuel aid in Massachusetts.

Census figures from 2008 show 182,000 children in Massachusetts – 13 percent of all children under 18 – living below the federal poverty level of $25,360 for a family of four. Even worse, in a state with one of the nation’s highest median incomes, about 87,000 children live in extreme poverty with a family of four earning less than $10,600 a year. It is likely that those figures have worsened in the current recession. We – as a society – cannot afford to have our children waking up in cold apartments, going to school cold and hungry and unable to learn. We cannot afford to have their parents and grandparents choosing between paying for heat or food or medicine or other essentials.

We thank our senators and congressmen from New England for their ongoing strong advocacy for LIHEAP and we are grateful to President Obama for releasing the emergency funds last month. But now we need you more than ever. Poor and working people in the northern states are in the midst of a cold weather catastrophe – a true national disaster. We ask your help in averting tragedy and making it possible for at-risk and hardworking families to survive this extraordinary winter by taking immediate steps to allocate a $2.5 billion increase in LIHEAP funds.

John J. Drew is President/CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, Inc. (ABCD), the Boston-area antipoverty agency and the largest human services agency in New England.