TO heat or to eat?
That is the sad choice very poor Americans might face next winter if sharp cuts in a federal heating-subsidy program become a reality. The budget cuts, proposed as part of the Clinton administration's efforts to finance welfare reform, could, in the worst-case scenario, reduce by some $700 million the money available in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Critics of the program claim the heating subsidy is a welfare benefit that became superfluous when the energy crisis ended. Its defenders refute that argument by pointing out that two-thirds of those who qualify for it earn less than $8,000 a year. Such poverty-level budgets, they explain, often require difficult choices between food and fuel.
The proposal comes as part of efforts to make good on President Clinton's popular campaign pledge to ``end welfare as we know it.'' The president wants to tie work to welfare, requiring some recipients to join work programs after receiving welfare benefits for two years.
Yet that worthy goal to encourage self-sufficiency carries an enormous price tag - about $15 billion in the first five years to fund work programs, day care, and wage subsidies. Paying for those programs without raising taxes requires cuts in existing budgets. That in turn leads to hard choices, as graphically illustrated in the suggestion to cut low-income heating subsidies.
To be sure, this is only one of many cost-cutting measures being considered by a 32-member group now drafting a plan to overhaul the welfare system. In House and Senate subcommittee hearings, in fact, the Senate Budget Committee reportedly favors restoring half a billion dollars to the program.
But even the threat of such cuts points up the danger of robbing some programs for the poor to fund other programs for the poor. Child advocates like Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund, worry that such cuts could ``destroy the safety net'' that now protects poor children.
On any scale of human discomfort, being cold and hungry rank high. Architects of a new welfare system must not rule compassion out of their budget equations. Punitive attitudes toward the dispossessed can only lead to punitive solutions. Poor children - the innocent bystanders in this debate - deserve better. So do their parents.