A Misguided Proposal

For the second consecutive year, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as HEAP, has come under budgetary threat. Not just a cutback, but elimination altogether.

The administration’s 2019 federal budget proposal would do away with the program, which has the simple, humane objective of keeping people warm in the winter. The people we’re talking about also happen to be among the most vulnerable segments of the population: the poor, the elderly, young children, people with disabilities.

The budget-choppers are justifying the proposal as they did a year ago, saying that HEAP “has been known to have sizeable fraud and abuse,” including funds that were discovered to have been going to “recipients” who were dead or in prison. They contend, further, that no one will freeze to death if HEAP is relegated to the garbage heap of entitlement history.

Fortunately, opposition to the cutback emerged immediately. “These arguments are very misleading and wrong,” said Mark Wolfe, director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association in Washington, D.C.

Forty-five senators, including some Republicans and Independents, agree with him, and they’ve vowed to fight to save the funding.

The accusations of fraud are couched in vague language. How much is it? Is it one percent? Two percent? No specific figures were given, curiously uncharacteristic of the federal budget bureau, where statistics are everything.

Not that they’re making up stories. Presumably, there are instances of fraud, as in any large government spending program, from defense contractors to mass transit; yet everyone recognizes the need for armed forces and buses and subways. We don’t eliminate all funding for fighter jets if one contractor is found padding the bill; we don’t shut down the subways if there’s a suspiciously large cost overrun.

That’s because those programs are vital for national security and the economy. Well, heating assistance is no less vital for the health and well-being of close to six million families.

Instead, perhaps what is needed here is better oversight and tighter accounting. Alleged abuses should be investigated, and if proved true, then there are laws to prosecute the offenders or at least stop them from receiving benefits to which they are not entitled.

The assertion that no one will freeze to death if HEAP is axed seems particularly cold-hearted, not to mention wrong. Maybe the budget mavens in Washington spent the winter in the Bahamas, but for the majority of Americans, it was a winter of record-breaking low temperatures.

Nor is it an exaggeration to say that there were people who really did freeze to death. Like Darnell Wilson, 64, who was found dead on his front porch in Akron, Ohio, on January 6 by a Mobile Meals driver. Temperatures in Akron reached a high of 14 degrees Fahrenheit that day.

During that same week, Indianapolis tied a record low of -12 degrees F, plus double-digit wind-chill factors; International Falls, Minnesota, hit -36 degrees F.

Of course, it’s always extremely cold in Minnesota in the winter. But even in the southern states, it was so cold they opened warming shelters in some places for people who had no heated homes to stay in. In Atlanta, the temperature fell to 13 degrees F.

The lack of funds for home heating will mean that many will suffer through the winter — even a normal winter — shivering and sick.

The news that the government may eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has lots of deserving recipients worried. “If the president turned around and did away with that funding, I have no idea how we’d survive in the winter,” Dwayne LaBrecque, a diabetic who is on disability after losing several toes and part of his foot to infection, told AP. After losing his job as a shipping manager, he and his family in Hartford, Maine, received about $1,000 in heating assistance this winter, and that money is already gone.

Steve Truen of St. Paul, told Minnesota Senator Tina Smith (Dem.) that without HEAP he would have had to sell his home of 30 years.

To make matters worse, the proposal to cut out HEAP follows close on the heels of a notion to replace SNAP (Food Stamps) with a care package called “America’s Harvest Box,” which would contain packages of shelf-stable food items such as long-lasting milk and cereal.

That idea had a very short shelf-life. The very thought of saving money by mailing meals to 42 million impoverished American households was met with scorn and ridicule. But if Budget Director Mike Mulvaney is not to be taken seriously on the Harvest Box, he is to be taken seriously about cutting SNAP by $213 billion, or 30 percent, in 10 years.

Millions of people depend on both of these programs. They are lifelines for needy Americans across the country. It is inconceivable that a government that submits a budget of $4.4 trillion in spending cannot find the money for SNAP and HEAP.

The administration has done well in finding the money to tackle the opioid crisis and prioritizing veterans. The Department of Health and Human Services has been allocated an additional $9.4 billion, and the Department of Veterans Affairs $11 billion more, according to reports.

It is to be hoped that the elected officials in Washington will succeed once again in staving off these ill-considered attempts to rip away the economic safety net that saves so many people from the ravages of winter and poverty.

There are better, more humane ways to save money.