The Daily Star
---- — It can’t be easy to rely on government assistance to keep your home heated during the winter.
But it must be even harder when that assistance runs out, or isn’t there in the first place.
The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program was established in 1981 as a supplement to help people pay their heating bills. But as Opportunities for Otsego Director Dan Maskin recently observed, “It has become the main source of paying for home heating for many people.”
The problem is that the money just doesn’t go far enough. High fuel costs and long winters mean that many area residents have to come up with other solutions for staying warm.
“Generally (the funding) is $600 for 150 gallons of fuel oil, and that does not always last the year,” explained OFO energy services coordinator Rhonda Barringer. “We hear stories of people getting a five-gallon gas can and filling it with diesel fuel or kerosene to supplement their heat.”
And as federal budgets get tighter, the funds for the LIHEAP program (administered locally as HEAP) dry up as well. The same family with the same income may find that their benefit has dwindled from one year to the next, while the cost of fuel continues to go up. In 2009, the program served 1.2 million New York households at a cost of $538.2 million. For 2014, only $303 million has been allocated.
Is this system completely immune to abuse? Probably not. While we believe local agencies take pains to ensure that the limited funds available go to those who are eligible, it is still possible that there are people “gaming the system” to receive this money.
We also believe that there are plenty of people in our communities who are truly in need of this assistance. But for many, the help just isn’t enough.
The Campaign for Home Energy Assistance estimates that, on average, HEAP benefits nationwide cover only 8 percent of household energy bills. The problem is particularly acute locally, with Otsego County’s poverty rate ranking among the highest in the state at 16.4 percent (according to the 2010 census).
We know that the billions spent on this program each year represent, at least in part, the hard-earned dollars that come out of people’s paychecks when they pay their taxes. And we realize that, if funding for LIHEAP were to increase, that it could mean more dollars out of our pockets.
But when we think about the senior citizens confining themselves to one room of their home for the winter because they cannot afford to heat the whole house, or children shivering in their beds waiting for the next fuel oil delivery to come, we think it might be worth it.