Editorial: A looming crisis: Poor and elderly could face desperation in next heating season (The Timberjay Newspaper)

The sharp run-up in oil prices could have a devastating impact on millions of Americans this winter, and most political leaders seem to have turned a blind eye to the situation.

This past winter was difficult enough for many, especially the poor and elderly, as they struggled to pay sky-high heating bills. But the travails of this past winter will seem mild by comparison with what could well be in store come the start of the next heating season.

Just last fall, fuel oil was running about $3 a gallon. While that was painful enough for many, fuel oil is $4.50 a gallon right now and it could hit $5 a gallon or more by this fall if current trends continue. That's well past a tipping point that will bring real hardship to many in our area, and political leaders in Washington and here in Minnesota need to start planning for it now. It's unrealistic to believe that the poor or those on fixed incomes will somehow be able to adjust their budgets to accommodate such unprecendented increases, especially when most haven't recovered financially from this past winter.

Indeed, we're already seeing the fuel price fallout, especially among the elderly. As we report this week, the Second Harvest Food Bank in Duluth has seen a sharp increase in the number of elderly residents of our region inquiring about food assistance because of high fuel prices. Most elderly residents are strongly averse to asking for help, but the situation is critical and many will no longer have a choice.

One elderly resident of Tower realized that grim fact one month last winter, when her entire monthly check went to pay her fuel bill. While she finally turned to the local food shelf for help, food shelves can only supply a few days of food assistance a month. Residents like this will need far more help than that if they're going to make it through a winter with fuel oil at $5 a gallon.

Without a major increase in heating assistance, many of our neighbors will be nothing short of desperate this winter.

Our political leaders need to take action now to head off such a stark reality. In Washington, Congress needs to get serious about expanding the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program as well as expanding federal funding for energy efficiency improvements for low income households.

The federal commitment to LIHEAP and other energy programs has been deplorable in recent years. Just $1.94 billion was alotted for LIHEAP in 2007. That compares to $2.1 billion allocated annually to the program way back in the mid-1980s, at a time when fuel prices were just a tiny fraction of what they are now. The need for assistance is much greater today, and the funding is less.

And at a time when everyone understands the need for improved energy efficiency, the Bush administration has proposed zeroing out the home weatherization assistance program. This program, which provides low interest loans and grants to low income homeowners to upgrade heating systems, add insulation, or replace old, inefficient windows, would reduce future need for heating assistance as well as put some of the many idled construction workers back on the job.

This kind of assistance is critical because those with limited incomes are the hardest hit by high fuel costs, and are typically the least able to afford the kind of efficiency investments that can reduce costs down the road. Without help, they're caught in a vicious cycle.

And we shouldn't just be looking to Washington to help break that cycle. State leaders, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have pushed energy efficiency as an important goal. It's time to put some money behind the talk, by picking up the burden that Washington refuses to bear.

Low income Minneso-tans will be among the hardest-hit of any Americans from this coming heating season and St. Paul needs to do more to ease the pain.

The demise of the era of cheap oil will bring major changes to life in America, some good, some painful. Over time, Americans will be able to adjust. For now, however, many are going to need plenty of help with the transition.