More families seeking home heat aid

Monday, January 12th 2009, 4:02 pm
By: News 9

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Whenever temperatures plummet in Boston, Amos Jones and his family of four feel the chill.
   Jones keeps his thermostat at 60 degrees and bundles up in extra sweaters and sweatsuits. Occasionally, he says, he allows a little luxury with the thermostat and turns the heat up to 72 degrees, "just to knock off the chill" in their home in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood.
   This, despite the fact that Jones received 200 gallons of heating oil through a federally funded energy assistance program.
   The Jones family is part of a record surge of people in need of help staying warm. About 7.1 million households are expected to get fuel aid this winter, according to a survey released Monday by the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state-run low-income energy assistance programs.
   That's 1.2 million more households than last winter, a 21 percent increase. It's also 600,000 more households than the previous high in 1985, the group said.
   "Many of these familes live paycheck to paycheck," said Mark Wolfe, the group's executive director. "They might have been middle class last week before they lost their jobs, but now they're not. These are record numbers of people."
   A lot of those seeking help have lost jobs or are struggling to pay bills amid the nation's economic crisis. Others, like Jones, are struggling to keep up with heating costs that have risen dramatically over the past several years.
   "In the beginning, we were managing," said Jones, 48, who underwent a kidney transplant in 2006. He, his wife and two children get by on his Social Security check and his wife's job as a purchasing clerk.
   Jones said in a telephone interview that he decided to seek heating assistance in recent years, "due to the flip-flop of the economy where everything went kind of haywire." He qualified for aid for the first time this winter after the income ceiling for a family of four in Massachusetts was raised from $42,400 to $53,000. The oil he received was just enough to top off his home oil heating tank.
   "We use it sparingly," Jones said. "I don't know what I'd do without it."
   With its cold winters and reliance on oil heat, the Northeast is particularly vulnerable to high energy costs. Northeast states are expected to have double-digit increases in households getting aid.
   In an average winter, most Massachusetts households use three to four tanks of oil, heating aid advocates said. The average tank size is 275 gallons.
   "More people are hurting," said Susan Kooperstein, a spokeswoman for Action for Boston Community Development, Inc., which provides aid to low-income residents in Massachusetts. "We are seeing a lot of people who have never before asked for assistance."
   Fifteen states expect increases of 21 percent or more in the number of households getting aid, the study shows: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Arizona, Alaska, New Mexico, Alabama, California and Oregon.
   The government last fall nearly doubled fuel assistance, releasing $5.1 billion to states for this winter. Cold-weather state lawmakers had for years sought the increase for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling subsidies for the poor.
   As part of the federal funding increase, state officials were able to expand eligibility for assistance and to boost benefit levels.
   Kooperstein said her agency's top benefit has risen to $1,305, nearly double what it was last year.
   Falling energy prices recently have created a false impression among many people that heating costs would drop significantly, Wolfe said. But home heating prices are projected to slip an average of just 2 percent this winter to $971, he said.
   "A lot of consumers are expecting to get a big drop this winter in their heating bills, but they won't," Wolfe said. "The shock of rising prices is over, but prices are still very high."
   Northeast households this winter can expect to pay an average $1,611 to heat with oil, compared to about $2,000 last winter, Wolfe said. Natural gas costs are expected to be $1,203, slightly more than last winter's $1,138 cost.
   "If you are a low-income family, the prices are still very high," Wolfe said. "That fact seems to be getting lost. Prices are about what they were two years ago -- and we thought it was pretty expensive back then."