For states with cold winters: More aid but also rising costs

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Raymond Archer was on the verge of losing his home during the cold Maine winter last year when government assistance came to the rescue, and he’s prepared for this season to be even more difficult.

Archer, a 50-year-old construction worker who was out of work for nine months during the COVID-19 pandemic, used $1,000 in heating assistance to keep his fuel tank full last year. He said he could need the help again along with many others with rising fuel costs and predictions of a cold winter.

“If it wasn’t for them helping me, I don’t want to sound drastic, I probably would’ve given up last year,” said Archer, who rents a home in Alfred, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Portland. “Only reason I still have my house is because they helped me.”

For Archer and others in need of assistance as winter bears down, the news about federal assistance and heating costs is a mixed bag. The average cost of heating a home this winter is expected to be $972, which is up from $888 last year, but down from October projections of $1,056, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

The Biden administration has also more than doubled funds for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, this season. The program, which provides money to some homeowners and renters for heating costs, typically receives $3 to 4 billion and serves 5 million households. The administration added another $4.5 billion via the American Rescue Plan.

But as some parts of the country are expected to have colder winters than normal, it’s unclear if that will be enough. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said states such as Montana and Alaska are looking at winters that could be especially bitter.

And not everyone who could benefit from LIHEAP money receives it. Some don’t even know they qualify, Wolfe said.

“A lot of people who are eligible don’t think they are eligible because they think it’s just for the very poor,” he said. “I think that’s what we’d like to do — encourage families to apply even if they think it isn’t going to be helpful.”

Eligibility for LIHEAP money is based on income. States administer the money and local agencies make it available to pay bills.

The amount of money residents receive plays a major role in their quality of life over the course of the winter, Wolfe said. Rising energy costs and lack of assistance can make families choose “between heating and eating,” Wolfe said.

Many families have been using their child tax credits to pay energy bills, Wolfe said. That benefit will expire in January unless Congress acts to extend it as part of a stalled $2 trillion social and environmental bill or other legislation.

The amount of LIHEAP aid residents will receive this winter will likely add up to be “not enough to cover all the bills, but it’s certainly much more than we’ve had,” Wolfe said.

In Maine, people in need of aid will have access to an extra $55 million this year because of the funding boost, said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership, an organization that includes the LIHEAP stewards in the state.

LIHEAP money is critical for many families in the mostly rural state, which has a high reliance on expensive oil heating systems. Oil heating prices are higher than gas, though both have increased this year.

“Gas prices are certainly high,” Hannan said. “Oil and gas.”

The rising fuel costs are arriving at a time when many low-income families are also juggling increasing housing, food and electricity expenses and the continued burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About a quarter of Maine residents are having difficulty covering household expenses, said Alison Weiss, a spokesperson for Maine Equal Justice, an economic security advocacy group. At the national level, it’s about one third. The rising expenses are the reasons low-income residents need more direct financial support from the government, Weiss said.

“We want to make sure everyone who is qualified for help is getting into the programs that are going to help them this winter,” Weiss said.

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