Editorial: High energy prices call for focus on needy (Burlington Free Press)

The rise of the average price of gas to a record $4 per gallon underscores the need for a practical response from the nation's policymakers that targets their efforts toward those who really need the help, while letting the market play itself out in other areas.

The increasing cost of energy is compelling a much-needed drive toward efficiency, which is sure to benefit our economy in the long run. Yet the short-term reality is that many people will suffer from rising fuel prices, which in turn pushes up prices for necessities such as food, transportation and heating fuel.

Rather than broad-stroke measures to artificially lower fuel prices across the board -- something that is sure to slow the transition toward a more energy efficient economy -- the government response should be targeted actions that help those most in need.

If Congress is dead set on doing something about gas prices, then it should look to a program based on need much like the heating fuel assistance program LIHEAP.

The list of those who need help keeps growing, including those who until a short while ago had thought themselves in the middle class and economically secure. Sen. Bernie Sanders raises a critical issue of how rising fuel prices is contributing to what he calls "the decline of the American middle class" brought on by an economic slowdown.

Sanders asked Vermonters how the economy was affecting their lives and heard back, not only from his own constituents, but also from across the country from people struggling with increasingly difficult times.

This is especially true for a rural state like Vermont where, with little mass transit, the automobile is the lifeline for so many people who have no choice but to drive to get to their jobs, take their kids to school, see a doctor or shop for groceries.

Other things, the market will take care of on its own.

The rising price of gasoline is leading people toward smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles in numbers large enough to finally grab the attention of the major U.S. automakers. General Motors last week announced it is shuttering four plants that make trucks and SUVs and will put more energy behind developing small cars that get better gas mileage. There's even talk of dropping the Hummer line, the iconoclastic nameplate among gas-guzzlers.

Plant closings, too, come with pain for those who will lose their jobs. But our country is better off helping the autoworkers find new careers than propping up the nation's addiction to fuel-hungry vehicles.

Over time, the only way to reduce the impact of rising oil prices is to reduce our dependence on petroleum, a move that will give this country a competitive advantage in the global economy. The people would be better served if, instead of impeding the transition, Washington worked to ease the pain that comes with the change.