Proposed LIHEAP cuts

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When President Obama gave his budget address last month, he shocked several members of his own party by proposing that the federal allocation for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program be cut in half.

Senators from several North East states, including Bob Casey, D- Pa., criticized the proposal.

bobcasey
SEN. BOB CASEY

“The president’s budget includes dramatic cuts in LIHEAP funding for Pennsylvanians,” Casey said. “There are certainly areas of the federal budget that could be cut, but LIHEAP is not one of them. As the congressional budget process continues, I will fight against cuts to this program that provides vital help for needy Pennsylvania families and older Pennsylvanians.”

Though President Obama’s proposal would cut roughly $134 million from Pennsylvania’s LIHEAP allocation, he said it would return the allocation to its pre-2009 funding level. The amount was doubled that year in response to a spike in fuel costs, which have since gone back down.

But even if the proposed cuts were actually enacted as is, said PA Department of Welfare Spokesperson Anne Bale, there will be no disruption to LIHEAP this year.

“Right now, it’s just a proposal, and that’s how we’re looking at it,” she said. “The Congress hasn’t even looked at it yet. So, by the time this goes through the whole budget process, it could be entirely different.”

Whatever form the final allocation takes, it does not affect this year’s recipients. Any cuts would be to allocations for the 2011/2012 winter heating season.

LIHEAP has two distinct components; the Cash Program that awards grants of $300-$1,000 to help pay bills, and the Crisis Program that pays $25-$400 for emergencies like broken furnaces or shut-off notices. This year application for both the cash and crisis programs runs from Nov. 1-March 31.

As of Feb. 24, Allegheny County had 29,687 residents who had received cash awards and another 867, who had received Crisis Grants.

Though natural gas prices have gone down, since a peak in July 2008, costs are inching up again despite increased production from domestic shale gas deposits like the Marcellus Shale. Those who heat their homes with oil, however, have seen steady price increases since 2008. US monetary policy, increasing demand in China, a moratorium on off-shore drilling and recent instability in the Middle East have pushed current oil prices to more than $100 per barrel.

As with other state programs, costs have driven the number of applications for LIHEAP higher, and relaxing the income eligibility requirements—from 150 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines, to 160 percent—have brought more households into the program.

At the current level, an individual can qualify for assistance with an income of $17, 328, $1,083 more than in 2010. For a family of four, the maximum income is $35,280, and increase of $2,205.

Bale said the welfare department has made adjustments before and will again because budget numbers are often fluid. There could be changes to the income eligibility, or the length of the application period, or there could be none at all.

“There are times when we’ve received additional funds in the middle of the winter heating season. It’s a moving, flexible thing,” she said. “We’ve seen every permutation possible through the years, and we’ve managed the program successfully.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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