Members of the Harold Hulce family in Milwaukee, Wis., make a total of $227 a month. They pay $250 for a tankful of home heating oil, which lasts six weeks in this winter's colder-than-normal weather.
Social workers in Midwestern and Northeastern states say the financial bind this places on the Hulces is not at all uncommon. This heating season more and more low- income households are finding that fuel bills can exceed total family income.
With the prices of food and other necessities rising along with the cost of fuel, and with unemployment on the increase, a lot of families are unable to cope.
"We're seeing far more people with fuel emergencies this year than we've seen historically," says Tony Maggiore, director of the energy crisis assistance program in Milwaukee.
"Thousands of low-income people who never before sought public assistance are seeking it now because they have no other alternative. They're finding that the higher energy prices coupled with unemployment and inflation are impossible to handle."
Mr. Maggiore says his staff has received 40 percent more energy emergency phone calls since Dec. 1 than during the same period last year. "In many cases, lives are in jeopardy because open kitchen ovens and gas flames from stoves have been used to keep the family warm."
Critics say the $1.85 billion appropriated by Congress for this year's low-income fuel assistance program under the Home Energy Assistance Act won't begin to help all those who need it.
Says Carol Werner, a legislative advocate for the National Consumer Law Center in Washington, "The appropriation is larger than the $1.6 million allocated last year, but this year's eligibility pool has grown considerably. There are now almost 21 million households eligible for assistance compared with the 17 million eligible last year.
"If the expected 70 percent of all eligible households participated, each one would receive an average of only $128 -- and that's before administrative costs are deducted. That's hardly an adequate level of assistance when you are looking at fuel bills which will run upwards to $1,000 and $1,500."
If the Reagan administration goes ahead with immediate decontrol of oil and natural gas prices, the spiraling costs will create additional "intolerable pressure" upon poor people, Ms. Werner says. Sixty percent of all low-income households heat with natural gas.
Says Bob Coard, executive director of Action for Boston Community Development: "Poor people are pressed to the wall with nowhere to go. they have a tremendous amount of anxiety over what's going to happen to them under the [ Reagan] administration. I hope things don't get back to the '60s with riots and all that. Last year people without fuel were siphoning it from other people's oil tanks.
"For low-income people it's a catastrophic situation. they depend on a hand-to-mouth delivery system. They don't have the cash to pay for home heating oil ahead of time. Small delivery companies don't give them credit. They won't deliver under 100 gallons of oil, and some charge a premium to do that."
A recently released study published by the Department of energy's Fuel Oil Marketing Advisory Committee (FOMAC) says of low- income households in the US:
* On average nationwide they will spend at least 21.8 percent of their income on household energy. In the Northeast and Midwest, they could spend up to 35 percent.
* They will continue to pay nearly four times more of their income on household energy than the average American household.
* They lost over $6 billion in purchasing power last year due to soaring energy costs.
* By necessity, they occupy low quality and energy inefficient housing stock that further penalizes them and their efforts to cut energy costs.
* They use 25 percent less energy th an the average American household for heat.