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PROVIDENCE â€“ The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is on the chopping block, Sen. Jack Reed warned Wednesday.
With winter whistling in and Congress bustling to finish its business for the year, the federal heating assistance program for low-income Americans faces what Reed calls â€śa dramatic cut.â€ť
â€śMillions of Americans are facing the prospect of literally being left out in the cold,â€ť Reed said in a conference call with colleagues Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont.
That trio introduced legislation Wednesday to preserve funding for LIHEAP at the current level of $4.7 billion. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration proposed reducing LIHEAPâ€™s allocation by about 45 percent, to $2.57 billion as part of its 2012 budget proposal. The bill has numerous co-sponsors including all 12 New England senators.
Without an increase in funding, Reed predicted, â€śwe are going to see real suffering.
â€śBecause of the length and severity of this economic downturn,â€ť he said, â€śthe capacity of local charitable agencies to help, the capacity of families and relatives to help has been, frankly, diminished.
Reed told reporters, â€śwe have to act quickly because winter will not wait.â€ť
The stateâ€™s senior senator called the impending reduction â€śbeyond frustrating because it puts vulnerable citizens at risk.â€ť
Not only does it help low-income families, Reed said, but â€śthis essentially puts money right in the hands of small businesses, the oil dealers.â€ť
Last year, 36,424 Rhode Island households received more than $31 million in LIHEAP assistance, 7,805 of them through the Blackstone Valley Community Action Program, which serves Woonsocket, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Lincoln, Cumberland and Central Falls
So far this year, according to figures provided by Reedâ€™s office the state has received just $12.7 million to meet its LIHEAP obligations.
â€śTime has never been more of the essence in the 30-year history of LIHEAP, I can assure you,â€ť Snowe said, noting that heating oil prices are 21 percent higher than when Congress felt the need to create the program.
â€śWe are facing the worst perfect storm in LIHEAPâ€™s history,â€ť she added.
â€śWe are in the midst of a terrible, terrible recession,â€ť Sanders said. â€śWe are seeing more and more people enter the ranks of poverty, unemployment is far too high and in America we do not want to see people being forced to make the choice between whether they heat their homes this winter or they buy the food that they need to stay alive or the prescription drugs that they need.
â€śNearly 80 percent of federal heating assistance helps the elderly, people who are struggling on fixed incomes, families with pre-school children and people with disabilities,â€ť Sanders said. â€śThatâ€™s where the LIHEAP funding is going â€“ to people who desperately need the help.â€ť
Both of Rhode Islandâ€™s congressmen, Reps. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, have added their signatures to two different letters to the House leadership this year to make the case for additional LIHEAP funding.
A letter delivered to House Speaker John Boehner last month said, â€śAs a result of the economic downturn and continued high and rising energy prices, record numbers of families are turning to LIHEAP for assistance for the third year in a row. According to the National Energy Assistance Director's Association (NEADA), roughly 8.9 million families nationwide received LIHEAP heating assistance last winter, an increase of 16 percent from two years ago. But even at those levels, only roughly 20 percent of the families eligible for assistance received LIHEAP aid.â€ť
If increases are not made to the current proposed funding levels, 86 congressmen and women warned, 2 million families nationwide could be dropped from the program.
"It is unconscionable that big oil companies reap billions of dollars in government subsidies, while many Rhode Islanders literally get left out in the cold,â€ť Cicilline said in a written statement. â€śWith so many Rhode Islanders struggling in the wake of a challenging economy, LIHEAP funding is a vital lifeline that we must protect," said Cicilline.
"Cutting our debt is critical to our nation's economic health,â€ť Langevin said, â€śbut it is morally reprehensible to force disadvantaged families, seniors and the disabled to go without heat during the coldest months of the year while preserving more than hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies and other special interests that don't need help. We can, and must, find these savings elsewhere."