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Fuel aid may dry up for many unless state helps

Broad federal spending cuts scheduled to begin March 1 would have a harsh effect on heating assistance, said John Drew of Action for Boston Community Development.

Toby Talbot/Associated Press

Broad federal spending cuts scheduled to begin March 1 would have a harsh effect on heating assistance, said John Drew of Action for Boston Community Development.

As many as 50,000 Massachusetts families struggling to pay their heating bills this winter are at risk of running out of fuel assistance unless the state steps in to help, according to a community agency in Boston.

John Drew, head of Action for Boston Community Development, said the agency is asking the Legislature to approve $21 million in funding for its fuel assistance program.

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The federal government this winter provided $132.7 million for the program to help lower-income families, seniors, and veterans. But about 50,000 families across the Commonwealth — especially those who use oil to heat their homes — have already used up their benefits, Drew said.

To get them through the winter, and to have enough money to help newcomers, he hopes the state will provide funds, as it did last year.

“It’s a very miserable time of year for people,’’ said Drew, particularly for those on fixed incomes. “It’s simple arithmetic. In many thousands of houses across the state, their income is insufficient to pay the rent, pay for the heat, pay the utilities, and feed their families. So something has to go, unless they have heating assistance.”

Lorraine Singletary of Dorchester, a 64-year-old grandmother, recently contacted ­ABCD to help with an emergency oil delivery. She said she had paid her rent and didn’t have enough left over to fill the oil tank. The agency helped her get 100 gallons to get her through February.

“It’s just so scary at times,’’ Singletary said, wondering how she will afford oil in March. If the program were to run out of funds, she said, “It would be a very big problem.”

Under the federal program, heating aid is available to families of four earning up to $60,137 annually and for individuals earning up to $31,271. Benefits are available on a sliding scale based on income, with maximum possible assistance of $1,125 for oil customers and $635 for those whose homes are heated with gas or electricity. ABCD pays the energy companies directly.

Heating costs are a perennial burden, particularly in cold regions like the Northeast. And the problem is getting worse as the federal government makes budget cuts, Drew said.

The sequester, broad federal spending cuts slated to kick in March 1, would have a harsh and immediate impact on heating assistance and numerous other programs that help the poor, he said.

Although this winter was relatively mild until recently, the government had forecast a more costly year for heating ­fuel than last winter, which was unusually warm. US households were expected to spend 17 percent more on heating oil, 14 percent more on natural gas, and 8 percent more on electric heat, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Last week, home heating oil was selling for $4.17 a gallon, up about a nickel from last year at this time. And since November, New England has been experiencing the highest natural gas prices in the nation, ­according to an Energy Department report.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.

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