More Melodrama on the Bad Economy, This Time Over Heating Bills

Woe in the Northeast thanks to the bad economy, says Erik Eckholm: "...natural gas and electricity prices have also climbed at a time when low-end incomes are stagnant and prices have also jumped for food and gasoline."

Reporter Erik Eckholm hasfound something else to blame on the economy in Friday's "Cutoffs Loom As Heat Costs Continue To Take Toll." (Back on March 31, Eckholm was talking about record food stamp use due to what a front-page headline proclaimed were "vanishing jobs.")

Friday's story began with a liberal crack about stagnant incomes:

After struggling with soaring heating costs through the winter, millions of Americans are behind on electric and gas bills, and a record number of families could face energy shut-offs over the next two months, according to state energy officials and utilities around the country.

The escalating costs of heating oil, propane and kerosene, most commonly used in the Northeast, have posed the greatest burdens, officials say, but natural gas and electricity prices have also climbed at a time when low-end incomes are stagnant and prices have also jumped for food and gasoline.

Eckholm assumes the federal heating assistance program is part of the political landscape, never to be reduced, only expanded.

The federal assistance program, known as Liheap, was started in 1980, to help families cope with sharply rising oil prices and energy deregulation, and it has become a routine part of the safety net. Unlike food stamps, which the government must automatically provide to eligible applicants, the program relies on annual Congressional appropriations that have not risen as much as the cost of energy.

Many states are calling on Congress to quickly add a $1 billion supplement to the federal aid program, which has provided $2.6 billion to low-income families in the current fiscal year.

Eckholm, who helped coordinate energy policy as a Carter Administration appointee, concluded by warning that there's more woe to come if federal aid to states isn't increased. No conservative critics of the program were cited.

Taking a different tack, Maryland this year reduced the number of aid recipients, to 91,000 from 100,000, in order to provide extra money to those reliant on heating oil, giving as much as $1,190 to the poorest. The program has a waiting list of more than 10,000 eligible families, said Ralph Marcus, the state director.

"I think that next year, unless there is a major infusion of funds for Liheap, it's going to be tougher," Mr. Marcus said.

The choice between benefit levels and number of people aided is a wrenching one, he said.

"Next year we're going to have to take a hard look at that," Mr. Marcus said. "We may need to reduce benefits because we want to help as many people as possible."