Northeast States Cut Heating Aid to Poor

By Andrew Miga, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mary Power is 92 and worried about surviving another frigid New England winter because deep cuts in federal home heating assistance benefits mean she probably can't afford enough heating oil to stay warm.

She lives in a drafty trailer in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood and gets by on $11,148 a year in pension and Social Security benefits. Her heating aid help this year will drop from $1,035 to $685. With rising heating oil prices, it probably will cost her more than $3,000 for enough oil to keep warm unless she turns her thermostat down to 60 degrees, as she plans.

"I will just have to crawl into bed with the covers over me and stay there," said Power, a widow who worked as a cashier and waitress until she was 80. "I will do what I have to do."

Thousands of poor people across the Northeast are bracing for a difficult winter with substantially less home heating aid coming from the federal government.

"They're playing Russian roulette with people's lives," said John Drew, who heads Action for Boston Community Development, Inc., which provides aid to low-income residents in Massachusetts.

The issue could flare just as New Hampshire votes in the Republican presidential primary.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she hopes the candidates will take up the region's heating aid crunch because it underscores how badly the country needs a comprehensive energy policy.

Several Northeast states already have reduced heating aid benefits to families as Congress considers cutting more than $1 billion from last year's $4.7 billion Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that served nearly 9 million households.

Families in New England, where the winters are long and cold and people rely heavily on costly oil heat, are expected to be especially hard hit. Many poor and elderly people on fixed incomes struggle with rising heating bills that can run into thousands of dollars. That can force them to cut back on other necessities like food or medicine.

"The winter of 2011-12 could be memorable for the misery and suffering of thousands of frigid households," New Hampshire's Concord Monitor newspaper said in an editorial. "Heating oil prices are expected to hit record highs, and federal fuel assistance may reach a record low for recent years."

Higher home heating oil prices and more families seeking aid due to the sour economy are straining resources. There's a 10 percent surge in new applicants in Boston, Drew said.

"Our whole program could hit a rock soon," said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

Families can expect to pay, on average, about $3,300 to heat a home with oil this winter in New England, Wolfe said. That's about $500 more than last winter. About half of the region's homes use oil heat.

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