Keep Americans warm this winter

By:  Sen. Bernie Sanders

The American people are hurting. A record-breaking 46 million Americans are living in poverty. Twenty-five million Americans need a full-time job. Nearly one out of four children in this country are living in poverty, and we now have the highest childhood poverty rate of any major advanced country on earth. Senior citizens on fixed incomes haven't received a cost-of-living adjustment in their Social Security benefits for two years in a row, even as healthcare and drug prices have soared. And as Vermonters and other Americans living in northern states are preparing for the winter, the cost of home heating oil is soaring.

We cannot balance the federal budget on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans by slashing the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

LIHEAP is a lifeline to dignity for millions of Americans. Last year, it provided the resources necessary to keep a record-breaking 8.9 million American families warm in the winter and cool in the summer - an increase of 35 percent since 2008. Nearly all of federal home heating assistance goes to the elderly, families with pre-school children and the disabled.

President Obama has been a strong ally of the home heating assistance program, but last February he proposed cutting the budget in half based on what turned out to be seriously flawed projections that energy prices would fall. At the time Obama sent his budget proposal to Congress, he said he would reconsider how much should go for heating assistance if oil prices soared. Unfortunately, they have.

The average price of heating oil now is expected to be higher this winter than it was during the price spike in 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration. Heating oil prices are projected to be about 25 percent higher this year than last winter and could soon top $4 a gallon.

The six governors from New England recently wrote that if the program's funding is significantly cut, Vermont and the other states in our region "will be required to take drastic measures that will endanger the most vulnerable LIHEAP households." Governors in Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and a dozen other states also have said that reducing funding "at this time would cause considerable harm."

State energy directors have estimated that a 50 percent cut in funding would leave them with few options but to cut millions of families from the program. In the midst of the current recession, when poverty is increasing, that would be simply unacceptable and could lead to a severe winter health emergency. 

It is not uncommon for the temperature to dip to as low as 20 below zero in the wintertime in Vermont and other cold-weather states. Without adequate LIHEAP resources from the federal government, the health and well-being of senior citizens on fixed incomes, families with children and persons with disabilities will needlessly be put at risk. We cannot let that happen. 

Everyone understands that we must reduce the record-breaking $14.5 trillion national debt and unsustainable federal deficit. But it would be immoral and bad economic policy to reduce the deficit by forcing the most vulnerable people in our country to go without heat when the temperature is below zero in Vermont or without air conditioning when it's more than 100 degrees in Arizona.

At a time when heating oil prices are projected to skyrocket, and as Vermonters and people throughout the country continue to struggle through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the home heating assistance program must be fully funded at no less than $5.1 billion. In the richest country on the face of the earth, senior citizens, children and the disabled cannot be allowed to go cold this winter. 

Sanders is an Independent senator from Vermont and a member of the Senate Budget Committee.