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Plan To Cut Heating Aid To Poor Draws Fire

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President Obama's plans to cut the federal heating aid program by about half is drawing protest from both sides of the aisle. This year's brutal winter weather and rising fuel prices make the assistance more important than ever, and advocates say there are more reasonable places for government to cut spending.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Washington and in states across the country, 'tis the season for budget battles, and first to the federal budget. Cuts recommended this week by President Obama were sure to spark anger, and indeed, they have. One of them is a proposal to cut by half a federal heating assistance program.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, opponents say the cut would force the neediest to choose between heating and eating.

TOVIA SMITH: With temperatures in the teens and snow falling by the foot, this winter has been brutal outside, and for many people, inside as well.

CORINNE CHAMPA: It's freezing up here. I'm sleeping in my jacket.

SMITH: Thirty-nine-year-old Corinne Champa lives on the top floor of an old triple-decker in Winthrop, where the wind whipping off Boston Harbor goes right through her windows. A single mom on disability, Champa says she hasn't been able to even turn her heat on since she ran out of oil a month ago. When it's really bitter, like when the toilet water froze, she stays with her mom; otherwise, she and her 9-year-old son make do.

CHAMPA: Sometimes, you know, I would put the burner on the stove just to warm up my hands.

SMITH: Champa used to get help through the federal Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, by this year, with LIHEAP already cut back, she was only able to get $350 worth of oil to cover less than a month.

CHAMPA: They'll say we don't have no more funds. It's very hard. I don't think it's fair.

SMITH: About half of New Englanders heat with oil, and with oil prices up about 30 percent in the past few months, advocates say it's exactly the wrong time to be cutting aid.

MARK WOLFE: Oh, we were shocked because we thought the administration viewed us as one of the priority low-income programs.

SMITH: Mark Wolfe with the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association says even now LIHEAP can only serve a small fraction of the millions who are eligible.

WOLFE: You know, frankly, you know, given the environment and the economy, I can make a much better argument to increase LIHEAP than to cut it.

SMITH: Dozens of senators are vowing to fight the cuts, from Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy.

PATRICK LEAHY: Heat in the winter is a basic necessity. When you have 17 below zero, you don't say, gosh, it'd be comfortable to have heat. You say we got to have heat, or we're going to die.

SMITH: Administration officials acknowledged the cut would hurt, but budget director Jacob Lew says the plan would just roll funding back to where it was before energy prices spiked in 2008.

JACOB LEW: This is a very hard cut. You know, we will keep our eye on where prices go and what need in the future is. But we can't just kind of cruise at a historic high spending level when we're trying to make these very difficult savings.

SMITH: Given the president's promises not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, some, like Mark Wolfe, wonder if the administration is just posturing the way a cash-strapped school, for example, might threaten to cut football.

WOLFE: I think that could have been part of the strategy. At the same time, it's also kind of alarming because it's a high-risk game because then what if people say: OK, fine. We'll cut you. That is truly scary.

CHAMPA: This might be them. Yeah. That's them. Thank God.

SMITH: After a month without heat and countless phone calls, Corrine Champa finally found a nonprofit, Citizens Energy, to put some oil back in her empty tank.

Unidentified Woman: It's not full. We've only got a hundred gallons.

CHAMPA: OK. Thank you. Thank you. Anything is good. Thank you.

SMITH: You've been waiting for this, huh?


SMITH: This delivery, however, may be her last. Nonprofits and local agencies say they're already overwhelmed. If federal funding is slashed next year, they say, don't count on them to pick up the slack.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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