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US releases $454m in heating aid for the poor

The Obama administration on Thursday released an additional $454 million in home heating assistance, including more than $18 million for Massachusetts, to help low-income families keep warm through the winter.

Advocates for the poor had pressured the government in recent weeks to release the funds, which remained stuck in Washington even as temperatures in Massachusetts dropped into the single digits and needy families began to run out of aid. The state so far has received $140 million in federal heating aid this season.

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Officials at Action for Boston Community Development, an agency that distributes heating assistance to residents in Boston, Brookline, and Newton, estimated the additional money will allow the 50,000 customers in the state who had exhausted their benefits to buy another 100 gallons of heating oil.

Still, John Drew, president of Action for Boston Community Development, said he would keep pressing state officials to supplement the federal money with another $20 million in heating assistance.

“I can’t let these guys off the hook,” Drew said. “If we can get the $20 million from the state, maybe we can get [customers] a couple hundred gallons of oil and get them through the winter.”

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About 200,000 Massachusetts households rely on the government to help them heat their homes each winter. In the past, fuel assistance tended to last longer into the winter, but a combination of reduced funding and high energy prices means those funds don’t buy as much as they once did.

Congress allocated $3.4 billion for fuel assistance this winter, down from $5.1 billion in 2010. With oil prices now above $4 a gallon , and frigid temperatures helping push up the prices of other heating fuels, such as propane and natural gas, the aid that families receive has been limited.

Thursday’s announcement came a week after Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren called on the Obama administration to release all available heating aid funds. Markey called the additional money a “lifeline” for Massachusetts residents who have repeatedly seen temperatures in the single digits this winter.

“With energy prices in Massachusetts spiking and temperatures dropping, these funds will help ensure that no one is left out in the cold,” he said.

Warren added, “This emergency action is critical to protect families and make sure they have access to the heating assistance they need.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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