Special Reports
More for war while the poor freeze
By K�llia Ramares
Online Journal Associate Editor

Oct 24, 2007, 01:24

George W. Bush's notion of fiscal responsibility is to spend as much as he can get away with on the military, give away as much tax money as he can in the form of tax cuts for the ultra-rich and contracts for his friends in industry, and then to balance the budget on the backs of poor and middle-class Americans. In the process, the man who claims to lead a "global war on terror" terrorizes millions of people in the United States.

His latest act of fiscal terror on the American people is to threaten a veto of the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill as too expensive. This bill provides funding for many programs that are important to the well-being of America's poor and middle class. LIHEAP, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is among them. Right now, 38 million low-income American households are eligible for assistance to pay their energy bills. But LIHEAP can help only 16 percent of those households. In contrast to budgets for American weapons of mass destruction, LIHEAP's budget has increased by only $300 million since it started in 1981.

The White House is proposing a 44 percent cut from FY 2006 in LIHEAP funding levels, a cut that will mean reducing individual grants of assistance and dropping 1.1 million households from the program altogether.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA, the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, the primary educational and policy organization for the state and tribal directors of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), said in a phone interview with me that more and more people are seeking help with their energy bills.

"It's not just the very, very poor anymore. Now what we're finding [is] these families making $25-35,000 a year -- families that you kind of think of as working families -- coming in and asking for assistance because the bills have gotten just so high. The real problem that we're facing is that energy prices are going up. They're continuing to go up. The era of cheap energy is over."

The Energy Department predicts that the cost for heating oil will be up 22 percent over last winter. DOE is also forecasting a 16 percent increase for propane, 10 percent for natural gas and 4 percent for residential electricity. The estimates may be low if oil prices continue climbing.

In July of this year, NEADA completed the first national survey of utility arrearages and shut-offs. Based on a sample of 11 states representing 25 percent of all households, an estimated 1.2 million households have been disconnected from electric and natural gas service in the March through May period following the expiration of state shut-off moratoriums. The report said that many states believe that the numbers this year are higher than in the past as a result of increasing electric and natural gas rates coupled with a cutback this year in the funding for LIHEAP. The program had $3.2 billion in FY 2006 and funding level of $2.1 billion in FY 2007. Bush wants to cut the program back to $1.78 billion in FY 2008. Contrast that to the defense authorization bill for FY 2008, which calls for $648.8 billion in military spending, and that doesn't count the Department of Energy's military spending, Bush's "off-budget" war spending, or the black projects that don't show up in congressional budget figures.

Wolfe wants to see the government step in to help the poor meet their energy needs. "We really have to guarantee a minimum level of access to home energy. It really is a public health situation and it really can be life or death. People really do cut back on their medicine and they do make choices that really aren't in the interests of public health.

Last February, when Bush first called for the LIHEAP cut, NEADA estimated that, among the households currently receiving home energy assistance:

  • 94 percent have at least one member who is elderly, disabled, a child under 18, or has a single adult living with one or more children. More than three quarters reported an annual income at or below $20,000,

  • 61 percent have an annual income at or below the federal poverty level.

  • 50 percent have someone in their household that has asthma, emphysema, heart disease, or stroke, and

  • 20 percent have someone who uses necessary medical equipment that requires electricity, most commonly nebulizers, oxygen machines, and other machines to provide assistance with breathing.

Wolfe told me that some choices the very poor make include heating their homes with candles, or with the stove. This is a fire hazard.

�When we look at this we really think the government clearly has a role in helping these low income families adjust these prices,� Wolfe said. �As I think about it, that's really what you'd expect from a decent government and that's what we should be doing."

� 2007 Kellia Ramares. Not-for-profit distribution is strongly encouraged.

Kellia Ramares is a journalist in Oakland, CA. Her website is Radio Internet Story Exchange. You can also find her on Newsvine.

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