Deep Cuts Challenge Families In Frigid North

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The high price of home heating oil and the arrival of frigid temperatures has people across New England struggling to pay their energy bills. It's an annual challenge in the region for poor people, and increasingly, for more middle-class families. And this winter, the struggle is even more difficult because of deep cuts to the federal home heating assistance program many depend on to get by.

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In the Northeast, states are struggling to make up for major cutbacks to a program that helps many people heat their homes. The federal government made an additional $800 million in aid available nationwide before Christmas.

But as Maine Public Radio's Jay Field reports, the extra money wasn't enough to cover the shortfalls in some states.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: Wendy Bushey is sitting in the waiting room at Penquis, a local social service agency in Bangor, Maine, where people can apply for heating assistance. Last winter, heating grants averaged about $800 per person. This year, they've been cut almost in half at a time when the price of home heating oil across the region has risen, on average, by as much as 50 cents a gallon.

A caseworker appears and asks Bushey to follow her into an office.

KATELYN EATON: What I'm going to do is I'm going to go over what we have in the computer...

WENDY BUSHEY: OK.

EATON: ...to make sure what we have is still up and current.

BUSHEY: Yeah, it is not.

FIELD: Katelyn Eaton reviews the information on Bushey's application from last year.

EATON: Amount of food stamps in Maine Care?

BUSHEY: It's three people in the house now.

EATON: All right, we'll add them in a second. Any general assistance from the town?

BUSHEY: No.

EATON: OK.

FIELD: Bushey, who's a single mom, worked for 11 years as a certified nursing assistant. But along the way, she hurt her back three different times. She ended up on disability a little over a year ago. Bushey says she depends on federal assistance to heat her home.

BUSHEY: The only income I have is my disability. And once we run out of oil, there's no way to get any because that all goes for my rent. So, it's going to be really hard. I have no idea what I'm going to do.

FIELD: Throughout the debate over the size of the federal debt, President Obama has warned of having to make difficult choices. His administration made one earlier this year when it proposed cutting the budget for the low-income Home Energy Assistance Program by 25 percent. A few days after Christmas, after loud protests in Congress, the administration released a little over $800 million of additional heating aid, but that still leaves Maine nearly $16 million short of what it got a year ago.

Melanie Hurlburt runs the Energy Assistance Program at Penquis.

MELANIE HURLBURT: Unfortunately, we're also seeing a large number of people denied this year because the income guidelines decreased from last year. So, the people who are eligible will get really small benefits. But the decrease in the income guidelines is keeping a number of people from receiving any benefit at all.

FIELD: It's the same story throughout New England. New Hampshire is getting $9 million less than it did a year ago. Rhode Island has 8 million fewer dollars to work with.

GOVERNOR PETER SHUMLIN: Let me tell you where we are in Vermont. We have, an example, 1,000 elderly widows in Vermont living on less than $800 a month in Social Security.

FIELD: Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin spoke with reporters on a recent conference call.

SHUMLIN: If there's one basic right in America, it's keeping people warm in the wealthiest nation in the world. We must do better.

FIELD: Vermont was still $8 million short after the latest infusion of federal cash. Yesterday, Shumlin and lawmakers struck a deal to throw in an additional 6 million in state money to close the gap.

In Maine, Governor Paul LePage has ordered state agencies to comb their budgets for an additional 15 million.

A few weeks after we met, Wendy Bushey learned she qualified for assistance but would be getting far less help than she did a year ago.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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