Governor Deval Patrick and governors from 13 other states called on Congress Monday to provide another $700 million in heating assistance for low-income residents, describing the program as a “vital safety net” for the poor.
The request came after a cold, windy weekend that was followed Monday morning when temperatures dropped to 18 degrees in Boston, according to the National Weather Service. Each winter, roughly 200,000 Massachusetts households rely on the program, called Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“With our economy still recovering from the Great Recession and households facing high energy costs, millions of Americans rely on the targeted assistance LIHEAP provides to help them cover their heating costs in the winter,” the governors said in a letter to the House and Senate committees that write funding bills. “LIHEAP is a critical bridge for Americans — many of them elderly, disabled or caring for dependent children — who otherwise may be forced to choose between paying home energy bills and paying for food, medicine, or other essentials.”
The governors, primarily from northern states, including five in New England, called on Congress to increase the program's funding to $3.6 billion from $2.9 billion. Budget restraints have cut federal heating aid to states by more than 40 percent since 2010, when Congress allocated $5.1 billion to the program. Funding for the program had increased significantly in the late 2000s in an attempt to keep pace with rising fuel costs.
The US Department of Energy recently projected that 90 percent of US households face higher heating costs this year.
That money will be distributed through nearly two dozen local agencies that help residents apply for aid to pay their heating bills. The neediest households that heat with oil are eligible to receive up to $950 in aid; last year, the maximum amount available for those families was $1,125.
Aaron Gornstein, the state’s undersecretary for housing and community development, called the heating assistance program “critical” in a cold weather state like Massachusetts. “No person should need to choose between buying their prescriptions and heating their homes,” he said in a statement.
At Action for Boston Community Development, which funnels heating aid to as many as 20,000 needy households in Boston, Brookline, and Newton each year, John Wells, vice president for energy services, said his agency would like to see funding return to the 2010 levels.
“Any number short of that, it’s going to be a huge struggle for families in the Northeast to heat their homes through the winter,” Wells said.
Already this year, he added, as many as 15,000 families have applied to ABCD for aid. Most of the group’s clients are elderly, disabled, and working poor.Erin Ailworth can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.