Dec. 15, 2006 – Over the next few months, families across the country will be deciding which comes first: staying warm or staying fed. Heating-fuel costs have soared in recent years, now rivaling food, health care and other essential expenses squeezing low-income households.
About three years ago, wintertime hit Darryl Haynes especially hard. His wife had recently died, cutting out about 40 percent of his social-security income, and he was soon buried under about $400 worth of heating bills.
"I just was slipping further and further behind," recalled Haynes, a 70-year-old resident of Holt, Michigan.
Haynes said he tightened up where he could, making partial payments on his utility bills, and "trying to spend a lot less money on food." Through a local social-service organization, he cobbled together enough canned food and other donated items to scrape by. An emergency heat subsidy carried him through the rest of the season.
Haynes explained that for seniors in his situation, scrimping on food is a rational way to survive the winter: "Bills come first. Thatâ€™s the way we were raised."
A recent survey administered by the national food-bank network Americaâ€™s Second Harvest asked more than 50,000 households using emergency food assistance if theyâ€™d "had to choose at least once" in the past year between food and utility or heating costs. Over 40 percent of surveyed households, and more than 50 percent of households with children, said they had faced that decision.
Social-service organizations attribute the home-heating crunch to an overlap of fluctuating energy markets and a disintegrating safety net.
The so-called "heat or eat" dilemma that visits poor households each winter illustrates that for many Americans, meeting one crucial need means suppressing another.
"You have to keep a car on the road, you have to keep a roof over your head, youâ€™ve got to keep it warm, youâ€™ve got to keep the lights on, youâ€™ve got to pay for medicine," said Deborah Flateman, CEO of Vermont Foodbank, which distributes free food through a statewide network of providers.
"What families usually do is they leave the food part to the end," Flateman continued. "They just somehow assume that theyâ€™ll be all right if they can keep everything else going." But ultimately, she said, Vermontâ€™s rural terrain, combined with the bitter cold, "just adds a very heavy layer of responsibility that drains familiesâ€™ resources. And for this reason, we see more people â€“ and especially more working people â€“ coming to food shelters [and] soup kitchens."
The Department of Energy forecasts that households will typically pay roughly $940 in total for home heat from oil, natural gas, propane or electricity from October through March. That is a marginal decrease from last year, but well above the $700 annual average from the previous five years. For those families that heat their homes with oil or propane, average costs this winter will exceed $1,300.
Social-service organizations attribute the home-heating crunch to an overlap of fluctuating energy markets, intensifying economic hardships among the working poor, and a disintegrating safety net.
More than 50 percent of households with children had struggled to afford food and utilities at the same time.
Chuck Calati, director of community programs with the Capital Area Salvation Army of southern Michigan, said that welfare "reform" has created a piecemeal public-assistance system. The overhaul of the 1990s locked benefits into a maze of bureaucracies and work requirements, he said, forcing people to "shop around to get the help they need," be it food or warmth.
Calati pointed to his own organization as part of a system constantly in "crisis mode, rather than avoiding crisis." The Capital Area Salvation Army can assist only households that have received a notice from the utility company that their heat is about to be shut off. According to Calati, the organization provided funds to more than 800 households last year, but turned away about 500 others due to eligibility issues or an outright lack of assistance funds.
The double blow of unaffordable energy and food insecurity pushes families into a patchwork of public and private supplements â€“ including food stamps, food pantries, and home-heating funds â€“ each typically covering a fraction of the need.
Deb Biehler, a coordinator with Capital Area Community Services, the organization that helped Haynes with heat and food, said that since energy assistance covers only part of clientsâ€™ costs, virtually all those needing help with utilities also need emergency food, in order "to divert more of their dollars towards their utility bill."
The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) distributes funds through state agencies to cover heating and cooling costs for poor households. According to 2002 data, of the households estimated to fall within the programâ€™s income guidelines, about one in seven obtained utility assistance, with an average heating award of about $250.
The $2.1 billion Congress proposed for LIHEAP for fiscal year 2007 is essentially a $1 billion decrease from 2006, and some $3 billion short of what state energy-assistance directors said was needed to cover growing need. The National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA) predicted that over 5.7 million households would receive heating assistance in 2006, a 12 percent jump from the year before.
Meanwhile, food stamps provide an estimated 11.8 million low-income families with just over $200 per month on average â€“ a partial subsidy by design. According to federal data, even at a modest consumption level, a two-child, two-parent family typically spends more than $550 on food.
Yet as families struggle to stay ahead of the cold, consumer and community advocates point out that profits for the dominant oil and gas companies have soared in recent years, and that recent rollbacks in electric utility regulation foreshadow even more uncertainty in energy prices.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA, said that skewed policy priorities in Washington are relegating communities to unsustainable energy costs. While lawmakers more readily acknowledge hunger as a social problem, he said, despite the tight political focus on global oil markets, they "havenâ€™t decided that energy assistance is a core need."
Yet he noted that volatile heat prices are one of many threats eating away at the poor. "You have a large number of families in the United States who just barely have enough money to live," he said, "and so anything for them is a catastrophe."