Heating Aid For the Poor Gets Cold Shoulder on Hill

Congress may make cuts as need increases and oil prices rise

IN the frosty mornings, LaDonda Shipman says the cold wind turns her Harlem apartment into an urban igloo.

To keep her three children warm, Ms. Shipman turns on the oven, which cranks up her utility bills. Last month she had to borrow against her twice-monthly public-assistance payment to pay her electric bill.

Now, her situation could become worse.

Congress is casting a skeptical eye over a program to offer heating assistance to low-income individuals and families. Shipman has used such aid in the past to get through the winter. "It's something I look forward to because when you don't have anything, it's something you can definitely use," she says.

But last month, the House zeroed out the 14-year-old Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which spent $1.3 billion on 6 million households last year. The Senate, which has yet to vote on the appropriation, has penciled in $900 million. If any money is finally appropriated, it is likely that it won't happen until next year - well into the frigid months.

Democrats and moderate Republicans are now circulating a letter expressing support for the program. So far, 175 members of Congress have signed the letter which will be given to the House-Senate conferees. No date has been set for the conference.

Proponents of the program are concerned both about the cuts and the delay. "We are dealing with people's lives here," says Frank Bishop, executive director of the National Association of State Energy Officials in Washington.

Mr. Bishop points to last summer's heat wave in the Chicago area, where hundreds of people who could not afford air conditioning died. Similarly, without winter assistance, he says, some people won't get the aid they need to pay utility bills and stay warm. Almost two-thirds of the recipients of the LIHEAP funding are elderly or the working poor. Only one-third are on welfare.

Conservatives in Congress, however, complain that the program is a subsidy to utilities who should be doing more to help the poor through pro bono programs. "The people who are arguing the most for funding this year are not advocates for low-income people but people who represent utilities," says David Kohn, a spokesman for Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over the program.

Mr. Kohn says that Representative Porter does not dispute the need for some kind of funding for the poor, but believes the money can come from block grants made to the states for such things as emergency clothing and shelter.

Kohn says energy costs have fallen 40 percent since LIHEAP was begun. At the same time, the poor have seen their heating bills fall by 33 percent. He notes that even the Clinton administration in its 1996 budget was asking for $300 million less money for LIHEAP than last year.

But the debate over LIHEAP is coming during a season when energy experts expect a greater demand for home-heating oil and natural gas. In its short-term energy outlook, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts demand will be "significantly" higher than last year, which was abnormally mild. The American Petroleum Institute recently predicted supplies would be adequate despite somewhat lower inventories.

But the EIA is anticipating higher prices, with home-heating oil retailing at 94 cents per gallon compared with 87 cents per gallon last year. The government also expects higher natural-gas prices.

Even if the LIHEAP program survives, it is likely to change because of spending cuts. Meg Power, a legislative assistant at the National Community Action Foundation, estimates 30 to 40 percent of the households will lose their funding. This will eliminate families making around $17,000 to 18,000 per year. Others will get a reduced benefit. "This could be life-threatening for some people," she says.

Another casualty of the program cuts is likely to be energy-conservation efforts. LIHEAP has been funding about $100 million to $150 million per year for permanent conservation efforts for low income housing. "That will be the first thing to go - the states will drop the long-term investments," predicts Ms. Power.

The prospect of Congress reducing or eliminating the funding upsets recipients such as Shipman. She would like the congressmen who voted against the funding to change places with her for a few weeks. However, she advises them to bring a winter coat since there is no guarantee the oven will be on all winter.

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