HEAP helps people keep the home fires burning

In announcing his plan to eliminate funding for a federal program that helps people – especially the working poor – to meet rising heating bills in the dead of winter, President Donald Trump’s administration alleged that no one was going to freeze without the program and, besides, it is rife with fraud,

Those are common threads among critics of federal programs that help the least fortunate among us. Money is being wasted, they say. If there is a real need, someone will step up to fill the void, they promise. And, of course, there’s the overarching contention, even if not spoken by the administration in this case: Too many of the recipients of federal aid simply don’t deserve to be helped.

The program that the president is putting on the chopping block is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It helps families pay their heating bills primarily through grants sent directly to utility companies or heating fuel vendors, which reduces opportunities for abuse.

Commonly known by its acronym, HEAP, the program has broad bipartisan support, especially among lawmakers in cold-weather states. A year ago, before Trump’s administration first announced its proposed budget, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, were among 45 senators who called for “robust funding” for the program.

They noted that more than 90 percent of HEAP recipients have at least one household member who is a child, elderly, or disabled, and 20 percent of the households include a veteran.

Congress rejected Trump’s proposed cuts last year and allocated $3.4 billion for the program. A little more than $3 billion was included in the budget that eventually passed.

Trump supporters

That money will help about 6 million households, which is why the program is popular, even among Trump supporters. The Associated Press interviewed Dwayne LaBrecque, a diabetic who is on disability after losing several toes and part of his foot to infection.

“If the president turned around and did away with that funding, I have no idea how we’d survive in the winter,” said LaBrecque, whose income plummeted when he lost his job as a shipping manager. He and his fiancee and their five children are struggling in the rural Maine town of Hartford. The family received about $1,000 in heating assistance this winter.

A Trump supporter, LaBrecque said he won’t be voting for Trump again if the president succeeds in killing off the program.

In Ohio, recipients must have had their heating source disconnected, be threatened with disconnection or have less than a 25 percent supply of bulk fuel. In Mahoning County, more than 3,500 families received help through HEAP’s winter crisis program last year. MYCAP also received funding that helped low-income families make winterization improvements to their homes that will pay long-term dividends.

As for the contention that if there is a need, others will step in to help if the federal government steps out, we would wonder who those others would be. The people of the Mahoning Valley already support their churches, the United Way, food banks, the Red Cross and other charities too numerous to mention.

During the blizzard of 1978 there were people here in the Mahoning Valley who were found frozen to death after their heat had been turned off. That was just 40 years ago, but it is a pre-HEAP time to which we should not return.

It is not realistic to suggest that private or religious charities are in a position to step in and keep 3,500 families in Mahoning County from having their heat turned off when temperatures outside are in the teens or lower. Multiple polls and surveys in recent years have shown that most American families don’t have ready access to emergency cash. A Bankrate financial security index survey released last month showed only 39 percent of American families would be able to cover a $1,000 emergency bill.

Granted, of those 4 out of 10 that were emergency-ready, many would have far greater assets. And out of those 6 in 10 who couldn’t come up with $1,000, many had nothing to fall back on.

If local charities are overextended, and 6 in 10 families can’t help themselves in an emergency, is it wrong for the government to help an unemployed veteran or a senior citizen getting by on Social Security from having their heat turned off? It isn’t.

The president should begin looking for imaginative ways to make America great again, ways other than cutting federal housing assistance, food stamps or heating assistance – ways that do not make it more difficult for the disabled or working poor to survive.

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