Is air conditioning, once a luxury, becoming a necessity?

Should the federal government help pay for air conditioning for poor people in hot climates, as it does hearing in cold climates? One recently Saturday night as the US heat wave gripped the Midwest, a group of nursing-home residents called Kansas City's Heat Wave Command Post with a complaint.The owner of their home had decreed that no fans were to be operated after 10 p.m. He had also shut down the air conditioning, although that was for the staff and not the patients anyway.

"There were 228 people in the community who offered to take those 19 residents into their homes, but they didn't want to leave," says Sgt. Jim Treece of the Kansas City Police. "So we sent two supervisors to the scene with five fans from a heat-relief center.

"When we got there, the first floor was uncomfortable. The second floor was unbearable. The third floor, thank God, didn't have anybody on it.

"The supervisors installed the fans and told the owner the fans would run or he would have to deal with the police."

Incidents like this make it clear that for some people, air conditioning, or at least some sort of cooling, is a necessity and not a luxury. "It's a matter of survival," some officials say.

Congress, however, seems to be of two minds on the issue.

The new Home Energy Assistance Act will help poor people pay utility bills for cooling as well as heating.But a Capitol Hill staffer warns, Congress intends that money will go for cooling only where certified to be "medically necessary" -- in the case of the elderly and very young children, for example.

Help with heating bills, however, is expected to go to a much broader segment of the public. In other words, heating is seen as a necessity, like food and shelter, in a way that cooling is not, for most people at least.

The more than $3 billion authorized for the program will be alloted to the states according to formulas weighted for population and climate. Then the states will distribute the money according to their own priorities, within certain very broad federal guidelines.

During the past winter, many states distributed heating-assistance money categorically to food-stamp recipients or others already identified by public-assistance agencies.

Yet the cooling assitance money is likely to go to some people who aren't generally thought of as "welfare recipients" -- elderly pensioners, for example.

Benefits under the Home Energy Assistance Act will come from the general fund , rather than a special trust fund, like social security benefits. One source suggests that this reflects the desire of Congress to keep the benefits from seeming to be "cast in concrete." Moreover, Congress to keep the benefits from seeming to be "cast in concrete." Moreover, Congress hasn't really committeed itself to funding the program, for either cooling or heating, after fiscal 1981.

A House committee staffer warns that Congress is leery of making air-conditioning assistance permanent: "You start out giving temporary assistance, and it becomes permanent. You give it to old people, and then everyone wants it. We feel there's just to much opporunity for abuse."

This same staffer says that the feeling in Congress is to prevent any of a newly announced $21 million aid package for heat-stricken states from being used for utility bills.

The White House press release announcing the aid, however, said part of the money would be available for air-conditioning assistance for those in "life- or health-threatening situations" (as determined locally), and relief officials say this is the area of greatest need. Older people have been dying, they say, because they dare not turn on their air conditioners for fear of the cost.

Congress would rather see the money go for other kinds of heat relief assistance, such as transporting the elderly to cooling centers, even though older people are often afraid to leave their homes.

Yet some observers feel, as one source puts it, "The trend is to assimilation"; that is, to consider air-conditioning assistance as part of an accepted package of benefits from the social welfare system. "It's definitely something to be watched -- or to be concerned about, depending on your point of view."

Ray Durazo of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute says, "The heat and drought have driven across the point that air conditioning is more than creature comfort -- it's a question of survival. But that raises the question: If it's a question of survival, how did we survive so far?"

The answer, he says, is that today's houses have fewer natural cooling mechanisms than those of earlier eras -- high ceilings, thick plaster and walls, big windows for cross-ventilation. And life styles have changed -- "We don't just sit, even in a heat wave."

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