The choice: Heat or eat

Santa Claus came to Washington early this year. Some, like the nearly one million workers who will lose their unemployment benefits on Dec. 28, will find lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings while nearly 2,000 of President Bush’s political appointees will find checks of as much as $25,000 in theirs. Others on the White House list include federal civil service employees whose annual wage increases were slashed by presidential edict and the 438,000 low-income families who will go without heat this winter because of the Bush administration’s threatened cuts in federal funding for emergency heating assistance.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), soon-to-be House Minority Leader, was among the first to challenge Bush’s two-faced approach to Christmas.

“The White House has once again rewarded its political friends at the expense of hard-working Americans,” she said in a prepared statement. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) joined Pelosi, calling the decision to give bonuses “the latest demonstration of how misplaced” the Bush policies are.

Kathleen Walgren, executive director of Detroit’s Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW), said there has been a “tremendous increase” in the number of families seeking aid compared to a year ago. “By the end of December last year we had paid a total of $177,000 to people in the several counties we help service,” Walgren said in a telephone interview. “This year we’ve spent $345,000 since Nov. 1 to help 722 families deal with their heating bills. Nearly 80 percent of that went to help residents in the city of Detroit.”

The story is much the same in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. where 4,000 families – nearly double the 2001 number – had applied to Community Action of Minnesota for heating assistance in the last two months. Anthony Spears, the organization’s chief financial officer attributes the increase to several factors: “Many of them are first-time applicants who are probably recently laid off workers. Then we have energy prices that are nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago and our local utility is being more aggressive in turning off heat and lights.”

David Fox, communications director of the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, told the World the refusal of the White House to release some $300 million in emergency funding for the Lo-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), means that funding for the program is at levels $600 million below fiscal year 2002. “If Congress fails to act, the number of households receiving assistance with their heating bill will decrease from 4.5 million to 4.5 million,” he said, adding. “Two-thirds of the families receiving LIHEAP assistance have incomes of less than $8,000 a year, the program clearly helps the people who need help the most.”

Twenty-one states are looking to their energy assistance programs as they wrestle with solving their budget deficits. Walgren said Michigan, where 362,000 families received one or another form of assistance under LIHEAP, “will either have to reduce the number of families enrolled in the program or the level of benefits. When and if that happen, there will be more pressure on THAW and other privately-funded programs.” She added that the combination of higher energy prices, colder weather and cuts in LIHEAP created a “Perfect Storm” scenario for tens of thousands of families.

LIHEAP, like hundreds of other government programs a caught in the vice of the Bush administration’s priorities of tax cuts for the rich and increased military spending – a situation made worse by a stagnant economy and high unemployment.

Bush insists on imposing a $750.5 billion ceiling on total discretionary spending – spending that must be approved by Congress – for fiscal year 2003. Although Congress has only acted on two of the 13 spending bills it must approve, these bills have eaten up $365 billion in military spending, leaving $385 for programs dealing with programs such as health, housing and LIHEAP, as wells as the money that will be spent for homeland security.

The Senate was able to hold up the FY 2003 budget in an effort to force Bush to change his priorities. Failure of agreement on a budget resulted in Congress passing a continuing resolution that provided funding to keep the government running at until mid-January. This means that the budget will be one of the first orders of business when Congress reconvenes in early January. It also means that, with the Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress, the battle with be much more difficult.

The author can be reached at fgab708@aol.com



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