PORTLAND, MAINE — Poor and elderly Americans who rely on aid from the federal government to heat their homes stand to get less help this year if Congress and the White House fail to figure out a way to avoid the combination of tax increases and automatic spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff.
If that happens, there will be an automatic 10 percent reduction in funds from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
The plight of those in the estimated 6.9 million households who rely on the money to keep warm hardly appears to be a priority for lawmakers in Washington, said Faye MacDonald, 70, a Bangor retiree who relies on the federal program to heat her small home.
“I feel like a little drop of water in a big pond that they don’t care about,” she said.
Congress is in no mood to approve emergency spending for heating aid as in past years, said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. Already, states have received less money than initially projected because of the pending fiscal cliff.
“In the past, lawmakers would find a way to attach emergency spending for heating aid onto other bills, but that just won’t happen in this Congress,” he said.
The program distributes funds to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories for heating and cooling costs, but it is particularly important in low-income states that rely heavily on heating oil.
Though just 6 percent of U.S. homes use oil heat, about half of families in New England use it. Residents there are expected to be especially hard hit this winter, thanks to a combination of high oil prices, forecasts of a harsh winter and the possible cut in federal funds, said Wolfe.
Oil is expected to be the most expensive source of heat this winter in the U.S. at about $2,500 per household, ahead of propane, electricity and natural gas, the energy association estimated.
“It could be very tough for a lot of people in New England this winter,” Wolfe said.
Every winter, poor and elderly people on fixed incomes struggle with heating bills that can run into thousands of dollars. Some find themselves forced to cut back on other necessities like food or medicine.