Low On Oil

  • The Boston Globe
The Boston Globe

The state’s lowest-income families in the fuel assistance program get $490 this heating season — about enough for two full tanks if they use heating oil. Most have run out in the midst of a severe cold spell. The federal government should immediately release emergency money for heating assistance, and the state should also help these households. Agencies administering the fuel assistance program still have funds for newly eligible households; it is the families that have used up their allotment that need aid.

A home without fuel for heat forces families to make unsafe choices. They often use dangerous space heaters or overload electric circuits. To afford oil, they sometimes skimp on food or medicine. When they go without heat, parents endanger their own children’s health and in extreme cases risk fatal hypothermia. For all the tough budge decisions that Congress and the state Legislature face, there has to be enough money to meet this basic human need.

Four years ago, while campaigning in New Hampshire, George W. Bush called on President Clinton to release emergency home heating funds and pledged to fully fund the program. Instead he has presided over decreases each year he has been in office. The program had $2.3 billion in 2002, $2 billion in 2003, and $1.7 billion this year. At the same time the cost of heating oil has risen.

Last month US Representative Martin Meehan of Lowell and Joseph P. Kennedy II, the president and chairman of Citizens Energy Corporation, proposed in the Globe that Congress set a permanent funding level of at least $2 billion that would be augmented as regions were confronted with severe weather. Automatic increases would go to areas based on degree-day needs.

That provision could also ensure that regions get extra funds for air conditioning when heat spells threaten the well-being of elderly citizens. As Meehan and Kennedy point out, a country that can afford to cut $148 billion in taxes on dividends and capital gains for the well-to-do can afford a tiny fraction of that to keep the poor from freezing. US Representative Edward Markey of Malden is proposing that the federal government meet needs in this region by drawing on a heating oil reserve established by an amendment he sponsored in 2000. Senator Edward Kennedy and other Northeastern senators are pushing for release of more federal fuel aid funds.

Of the 15,000 Boston, Newton, and Brookline households receiving fuel aid through Action for Boston Community Development, approximately 34 percent are elderly, 36 percent have a disabled family member, 30 percent are working poor, and 21 percent have a child under 6. The federal and state government should act quickly to ensure that none of them is without heat this winter.