Living in fear of losing LIHEAP
PORTLAND, Maine — The summer air is sizzling as the Fourth of July approaches, yet 86-year-old Richard Perkins already worries about how he’s going to stay warm this winter.
President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating heating aid for low-income Americans, claiming it’s no longer necessary and rife with fraud. People needn’t worry about being left in the cold, he says, because utilities cannot cut off customers in the dead of winter.
But the president is wrong on all counts.
A lifeline: The heating program provides a critical lifeline for people such as Perkins, and officials close to the program don’t see any widespread fraud. Guidelines for winter shutoffs by utilities vary from state to state and don’t apply to heating oil, a key energy source in the brittle New England winter.
“It’s beyond my thinking that anyone could be that cruel,” said Perkins, a retired restaurateur who relies on the program to keep warm in Ogunquit, Maine.
The proposal to kill the program, which has distributed $3.4 billion to about 6 million households this fiscal year, will face strong opposition in Congress.
Opposition: Forty-three senators from mostly cold-weather states already signed a letter urging the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on an appropriations subcommittee to ensure funding for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, known in many states by its acronym, LIHEAP (pronounced LY’-heep).
In Maine, the poorest state in New England, the program helped about 77,000 people over the past winter, and those numbers represented less than a quarter of eligible households, said Deborah Turcotte of MaineHousing, which helps to run the program.
Perkins is a typical recipient.
His income was fine 10 or 12 years ago when he retired, but gasoline, food and other expenses grew faster than he anticipated. In the winter, he keeps an eye on his oil storage tank, and the local community action agency sends 100 gallons when it gets low.
It’s difficult for him to keep warm because he’s on a blood thinner, and he shudders at the thought of being cold. But he doesn’t want to move south, either.
“I was born and raised here,” he said. “Maine is part of me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Outdated data: Mark Wolfe, of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, said that the Trump administration is relying on an old General Accounting Office report on the fraud claim, and that improvements have been made since then. In Maine, for example, only 100 cases — 0.3 percent of all submitted applications — are being investigated for potential fraud, according to MaineHousing.
And programs aimed at preventing utilities from being turned off wouldn’t protect everyone. Utility regulations vary, with some states preventing shutoffs during the entire winter and others doing so only on exceptionally cold days.
And there’s absolutely no requirement for heating oil and propane dealers, which are not regulated like electric and natural gas utilities, to make deliveries to customers who cannot pay. That’s a big problem in the Northeast, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the nation’s residential heating oil consumption.
Nationwide, the average home heating cost last winter was $1,448 for propane, $1,227 for heating oil, $902 for electricity and $577 for natural gas.