With winter quickly approaching and heating oil prices nearing $4 a gallon, Bernard Wheeler, 73, of Mount Holly, Vt., has realized the devastating effects of the billions of dollars in cuts to the federal heating assistance program, known as LIHEAP. This year, Wheeler received enough money to buy little more than 100 gallons of heating oil, hardly enough to get through the winter.
"They are taking the fuel assistance away from us to give it to the 1 percenters on top -- the millionaires. Like they need it," said Wheeler, who continues to work part-time running the bailer at a recycling center in Belmont, Vt., to help pay his bills.
Wheeler is just one of tens of thousands of Vermonters who rely on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to keep warm and is one of many people that contacted Sen. Bernie Sanders' office to share their concerns. Several years ago, Sanders helped double the annual funding for LIHEAP to $5.1 billion. This winter, the senator is fighting to make sure Vermonters don't have to choose between feeding their families, buying medicine and heating their homes. Last winter, the federal heating assistance program helped more than 26,000 Vermont families.
Based on seriously flawed projections that energy prices would fall, the president proposed cutting the heating assistance budget in half. Many Republicans also want to underfund LIHEAP. The reality is oil prices have soared. Vermont heating oil prices are more than one-third higher than they were one year ago.
Heating oil prices in Vermont were $3.83 a gallon this month- 34 percent more than the $2.85 Vermonters paid one year ago, according to the Vermont Fuel Price Report.
"We could see prices on average of $4 across the winter months," Richard Moffi, the head of the Vermont Fuel Assistance Program at the Department for Children and Families told the Valley News.
"At a time when many Vermonters are struggling to pay the bills, it's unthinkable to cut this lifeline and force people throughout our country to go cold," Sanders said of the cuts to LIHEAP.
The home heating assistance program is a lifeline for some of our most vulnerable citizens. Some 67,000 Vermonters, or 10.8 percent of the state's population, lived in poverty last year. That's an increase of nearly 10,000 Vermonters from just one year earlier, according to the Census Bureau.
Sanders is clear on the need for restoring LIHEAP's funds. "We cannot allow rising heating prices to force more of our neighbors into poverty."
Josie Crosby, 81, from Brattleboro, Vt., also called Sanders' office. She received "significantly less" heating aid than last year. "We are OK right now," she said. "Then we will have money for one more tank. After that, I don't know."
Crosby says if the LIHEAP cuts are not reversed, she and her husband will have to trim their grocery budget and "cut back on a lot of things."
Governor Peter Shumlin and the five other governors from New England recently warned of the dangers of slashing the program's funds. They wrote that Vermont and the other states in our region "will be required to take drastic measures that will endanger the most vulnerable LIHEAP households."
"With cold weather approaching, the recession dragging on, poverty increasing and home heating prices rising, many people in our state and throughout the country will have a hard time affording the heating fuel they need to keep their families warm this winter," Sanders said. "We must not balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable and we must not cut funding for this crucial heating assistance program."