People in our community were facing higher home heating bills this winter even before hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept over the Gulf Coast, disrupting our oil and gas production and distribution system. Now we're looking at the prospect of natural gas prices that will be 48 percent higher on average this winter. Fuel oil and propane costs are expected to be 30 percent higher or more. We may have spared the hurricanes' initial wrath, but we're now in line to become its second wave of victims.
It's going to be a struggle for most Americans to pay higher heating bills. But for many of our neighbors, it will be almost impossible. Senior citizens trying to get by on Social Security, the disabled and poor families with small children will have a much harder time. Energy costs often ate up as much as 30 percent of their household income even before the prices began to rise.
While we need long-term energy solutions, we need immediate government intervention to help those least able to cope with higher energy costs. The best short-term help is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It's a federally funded program that helps our most vulnerable citizens pay their energy bills when they might otherwise be faced with utility shutoffs or with empty oil or propane tanks.
It's a program that works well. Unfortunately, it's also a program that's grossly under-funded. Congress provided only $2.2 billion for LIHEAP in 2005. That was only enough to help about 14 percent of the estimated 32 million U.S. households eligible for assistance. What's worse is that lawmakers want to provide even less for fiscal year 2006.
I urge you to join me in asking our senators and representatives to provide an emergency supplemental appropriation for LIHEAP that would raise funding for LIHEAP to $5.1 billion this fiscal year. That would be just enough to compensate for the higher energy prices we're expecting in the months ahead and would help people when they need help the most. It's not just the right thing to do. It will save lives.
Kari L. Lindsey