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home heating | editorial

Assistance, in dollars and ducts

IT MIGHT be a mild winter so far, but with the price of heating oil up by 47 cents to 85 cents a gallon over last year, low-income residents are still feeling the pinch. Unfortunately, even with rising energy costs, Congress has slashed funding for the federal program to help poor households stay warm. State lawmakers are now considering a proposal to partially fill the gap out of the state’s own coffers — a move that would be a welcome boost.

Squabbling over heating assistance has become a yearly ritual in Congress, forcing lawmakers from cold-weather states to battle for adequate funding. This year, the Northeast came up short; Congress authorized only $3.5 billion, down from $4.7 billion last winter. In Massachusetts, that translates into a cut of more than $50 million; in Boston, the maximum benefit for the poorest households has been cut from $1,240 two years ago to $1,025 this winter.

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State lawmakers are now considering a plan to kick in $21 million. Given the need — applications for heating assistance in Boston are projected to rise 10 percent this winter — it’s an appropriate response. In the long term, though, the government should also do more to encourage energy-efficient homes — which would reduce costs, while also helping to cut carbon emissions. Installing smart thermostats, replacing older burners, and sealing ducts can cut heating costs by 30 percent.

Yet the federal government’s support for weatherization, after a brief surge in President Obama’s stimulus, is down even more drastically than spending on heating assistance. In the latest budget, Congress slashed weatherization aid for low-income households by 60 percent.

That’s short-sighted. A sustained effort to cut energy bills for low-income homes would reduce the need for heating assistance in the first place — which is why congressional critics of the heating subsidies ought to be the first ones demanding greater federal investment in efficiency.

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