WASHINGTON — Congress is proposing to cut a popular program that helps millions of low-income Americans pay their heating and cooling bills, even though a record number of people are expected to apply for aid this winter.
Cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program could reduce or eliminate aid to thousands of laid-off workers, retirees living on fixed incomes and struggling families with young children, advocates say.
A record 9 million people applied for LIHEAP heating assistance last year, up from about 4 million a few years back, according to Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
Applications are expected to set another record in fiscal 2012, which began Oct. 1, because millions of people can't find work.
"This is a need-to-fund program, not just a nice-to-fund program," said Brandon Avila, spokesman for the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. "It's tailored to the poorest of the poor. It's not one you can get rid of."
Under LIHEAP, the federal government provides grants to states, which then distribute them to their neediest residents through local social service agencies. Most of the aid goes to help people pay heating bills in the winter.
LIHEAP received $4.5 billion in fiscal 2011, down from $5 billion in each of the previous two fiscal years.
Wolfe said advocates are urging Congress to set aside at least $5 billion for fiscal 2012 so no eligible applicant is turned away.
So far, Congress doesn't seem convinced.
Last month, the House Appropriations Committee recommended $3.4 billion for LIHEAP. The Senate Appropriations Committee called for $3.6 billion.
A stopgap spending bill that will keep the federal government operating through Nov. 18 contains about $4.5 billion for LIHEAP, but that money hasn't yet reached the states. Advocates expect Congress to approve about $3.5 billion for this fiscal year.
Congressional appropriators say they had to trim funding for energy assistance programs to reduce health care fraud, beef up the Race to the Top education reform program, lower the national debt, and pay for other priorities.
However, some lawmakers representing many low-income constituents say LIHEAP is critical to their districts.
"The numbers in the House and Senate bills are not high enough, and I'm going to do what I can to make them higher," said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. "The people who rely on LIHEAP don't have an alternative. The alternative is to sleep in a house that's 50 degrees."
President Barack Obama proposed $2.5 billion for LIHEAP in his fiscal 2012 budget request, pointing to projections of lower energy prices this year. Obama said he'll push Congress for additional funding if demand skyrockets or prices rise.
Advocates lobbied Congress to reject the president's recommendation.
Critics of the move to add money to LIHEAP say the program is well-intentioned but doesn't solve the bigger problem of high energy prices.
The federal program also is redundant because many states already act to keep people warm in the winter and cool in the summer, according to Nicolas Loris, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"Despite the noble intentions behind LIHEAP, it is a program beset by fraud and waste and it fails to address the real issue of reducing high energy prices," Loris said in a February blog post.
The Government Accountability Office reported last year that it found many problems when it investigated LIHEAP programs in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Virginia.
For instance, 429 applicants in those states used the Social Security numbers of dead people to get benefits. Hundreds of prison inmates were listed on applications filed by their family members, the GAO found.
The report recommended tighter controls, mainly at the state levels, and advocates say states are working to fix what they call isolated problems.
Though LIHEAP is a federal program, states do much of the oversight.
States also set the eligibility criteria, but generally restrict it to people earning about 150 percent of poverty level, or $33,525 a year for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Many states, particularly in the Northeast and the Midwest, use their own money to supplement the federal energy assistance grants, but advocates say the state share is shrinking.
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About 80 percent of LIHEAP grants are used up during winter. The average benefit -- paid directly to individuals or to utilities and landlords on behalf of beneficiaries -- was $450 per household last year, covering about half of a family's typical heating bill for the winter, according to Wolfe.
New York had the largest number of households getting LIHEAP money -- 1.3 million -- in fiscal 2010, the last year for which federal statistics were available.
Other states with large numbers of households receiving LIHEAP funding, according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance: Michigan (615,000), Pennsylvania (602,000), Illinois (460,000), Ohio (414,000) and New Jersey (386,500).