With heating assistance cuts, 150,000 more Illinois families will be left out in the cold

With heating assistance cuts, 150,000 more Illinois families will be left out in the cold

This week's cold snap has reminded us all of what winter can feel like in Chicago, and it's not pleasant. That biting wind and creeping frost is enough to keep most people inside this time of year. But what if inside isn't much better? A lot of Illinois families may be in that situation due to cuts to Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program--the low-income heating and energy assistance program.

Last year, the program gave $4.7 billion to the states to help individual families heat their homes. This year, the states are only getting $3.5 billion. While that's bad, it's actually more than President Barack Obama originally proposed in his budget. He recommended cutting the program to $2.57 billion.

In 2011, the program served more than half a million Illinois families who needed help paying their heating bills. According to the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, that's about a quarter of the families who are actually eligible to get assistance. These families make less than 150 percent of the poverty level and, on average, get about $450-500 in assistance. While that may sound like a lot, it actually paid about 8 percent of most family's energy bills.

With the lower funding levels, it's likely that many families won't receive assistance this year. If Illinois gets about 5.5 percent of the $3.5 billion pie, which is about average for the last few years, and each family gets around $500 in assistance, then we'll be serving 385,000 families--more than 150,000 fewer than in 2011.

Last year, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association did a study showing home heating costs have risen by more than 25 percent since 2005. Poor families are paying a large chunk of their income on utility bills--more than four times the proportion that middle- and upper-income families paid. When the heating bill costs too much, the report shows, people have to make dire choices--heat or medicine, heat or food, heat or health care.

This week, Lake Superior State University came out with its list of "banished words"--words that have been deemed over or incorrectly used. Number three is "shared sacrifice," a phrase that has become all too common in the mouths of politicians talking about budget cuts. I think most Americans are up for shouldering their part of the burden in a bad economic climate, but I don't know how comfortable we all are with that sacrifice meaning cold homes, utility shutoffs and more people dying from exposure to the cold. Who is this sacrifice being shared by, exactly? That's a question we rarely get an answer to.

Photo credit: Robbie Sproule

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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