Poor Pinched to Pay Energy Bills This Winter As States, US Cut Aid

Clinton releases fuel money for now, but '95 bugdet chops funds

JUDY Bankowki spends several hours a day at her oven. She is not cooking, however. She is heating her home.

Out of oil and out of government aid to pay her oil bills, Ms. Bankowski must use her four-burner gas stove to heat her apartment in this section of Boston.

``I've become a professional at working the oven,'' says Bankowski. As a single mother on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), she knows she will not be able to pay her skyrocketing gas bill either.

A bitter cold winter and cutbacks in federal and state fuel assistance benefits have left thousands of low-income families without fuel assistance benefits, from those living in uninsulated homes in Sun Belt states to those in frigid Chicago.

In 1990-1991, the United States had an estimated 1,125 million low-income households whose heat source was interrupted due to an inability to pay, according to a report to Congress by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The program, which is funded by the US Health and Human Services Department, began in 1981 after the oil-price shocks of the 1970s that drove up the cost of home-heating fuel.

``[We] are now out of money with two-and-a-half months left in the year,'' says Charles Hughes, executive director of the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. Mr. Hughes's agency is one of 980 community agencies under the umbrella of the National Community Action Foundation (NCAF) in Washington, D.C.

They administer about one-third of the federal fuel-assistance funds funneled through LIHEAP. Around six million families receive help paying their energy bills each year, according to NCAF.

Temporary relief is on the way this month for Ms. Bankowski and thousands of other families. In response to January's cold snap, President Clinton released $300 million in emergency money for energy assistance Feb. 18 for the 23 states hardest hit by the cold.

But next year, millions of families who now receive assistance may receive no assistance at all, or see their benefits cut sharply. The Clinton budget, as proposed, would cut fuel assistance funds over 50 percent - from $1.47 billion to $730 million. The administration cited lower energy costs, other assistance programs, and the program's funding of families in Sun Belt states as reasons to cut back LIHEAP.

``[That cut] would be a disaster,'' says Mr. Hughes. A 50 percent cut would leave close to 60,000 homes unassisted in Chicago alone, he says.

By NCAF calculations, 28 million Americans meet the federal income guidelines for energy assistance, but of those only 23 percent receive the benefits. The other 77 percent may have been denied benefits because they did not meet narrower state eligibility guidelines or the state programs had run out of funds, or because they never applied.

Federal fuel assistance funds peaked at $2.1 billion in 1985. Since then those funds have fallen, along with state funding. State funding dropped from $17 million to $10 million between 1986 and 1992, according to NCAF.

``[LIHEAP] is one of the few programs still available to working poor households,'' says Meg Power, executive director of NCAF. Three-quarters of LIHEAP recipients had incomes below $8,000 in fiscal year 1992. ``We really are talking about people paying that bill and not putting food on the table,'' says Mr. Hughes.

For Ms. Bankowski and her four-year-old daughter, this winter has been unusually difficult. ``I'm trying to keep a stiff upper lip,'' she says. ``Thank God [my daughter] is little and doesn't understand what I am going through.''

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