Like a falling thermostat, federal fuel aid to low income households in Massachusetts has plunged by 28 percent compared to last year as the winter heating season descends on New England.
Last year Massachusetts received approximately $184 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding from the federal government. This year, the state is slated to receive $132 million — $52 million less than we received last year.
“We don’t expect Congress to do much more at this point,” said Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care. “They’ve left many seniors in a ‘heat or eat’ situation as we head into the New Year.”
Home heating oil prices are at unprecedented levels: $3.77 per gallon average as of mid December, up about 45 cents per gallon over the last year.
As of late December, the maximum benefit for oil-heat households were $675, and $285 for those who use gas or electric to heat. These numbers will increase in January as states receive the last portion of the $132 million from the federal government.
Last year, the maximum oil benefit was $1,050 and the maximum electric/gas benefit was $750.
So, maximum oil benefits are 35 percent lower than last year, and maximum electric/gas benefits are 62 percent lower.
Fuel assistance spokesmen predicted that oil customers would use up their current benefits by Christmas. Even the very poorest households, those who get the $675, would not be able to fill up one tank. The $675 fills about two-thirds of the average 275-gallon tank. Households need two to three tanks to get through the winter.
Fewer than 250,000 households applied for LIHEAP last year. With a continuing weak economy and high unemployment, those numbers could increase.
Mass Home Care has joined other fuel assistance advocates in seeking a $30 million state appropriation from the General Court to protect elders from having to make the choice of “heat or eat” this winter. The soonest this could happen is in late January — and it would still leave the program below last year’s level.
Norman said that seniors are especially vulnerable to fuel aid shortages. In some areas of the state, seniors make up 40 percent or more of the applicants for fuel assistance. Their homes are older, less fuel efficient, and seniors are often in their homes all day. “This is definitely a population at risk,” Norman said. “Every winter we worry about seniors staying warm — and every winter we say that the state needs to have a fuel program of its own because we can’t depend on the federal government to take care of all the need that’s out there.”