Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Dickensian Tale of Today: The US Poor Freeze in Winter

Imagine the richest country in the history of the world letting its poor freeze, possibly to death, in the cold winds of winter. It sounds like a miserly, horrid tale out of Charles Dickens' time.

Sadly, it's today, and it's the United States. The rich get richer, fatter and cozier, and the poor starve and freeze.
A New York Times editorial today......Washington's Cold Shoulder

The weather is turning cold, and home heating fuel is increasingly unaffordable. The Energy Department recently reported that households should expect to pay 48 percent more this year for natural gas, on average, and nearly a third more for oil and propane - assuming a "normal" winter and no further supply disruptions like Katrina.

In and of themselves, those increases will be too much for an estimated seven million low-income Americans, including old people, disabled people and families with children. On top of gasoline prices that are already high and wages that are stagnating, the rising cost of heating fuel is bound to be devastating.

Yet Congress is balking at approving an additional $3 billion in federal heating subsidies that would help meet the coming need. (Lawmakers allocated $2 billion to the subsidy program last summer, before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sent prices soaring.)

Earlier this month, and again on Thursday, measures in the Senate to provide the extra funds were defeated, largely by a bloc of Republican lawmakers, though with each vote, a handful of Republicans voted in favor and a few Democrats voted against.

At the same time, Republican majorities in Congress are unrelenting in their drive to pass $70 billion in new tax cuts this fall, most of them for wealthy investors, and $35 billion in spending cuts, most in programs that benefit the poor.

With Congress's priorities so obviously skewed, the best chance for adequate heating subsidies this winter lies with President Bush. Advocates for the poor are hoping that Mr. Bush will ask for the additional money in a future hurricane-related emergency spending request to Congress. But so far, Mr. Bush has not said whether he will ask for more heating aid, and, if so, when or how much.

This sad lack of urgency is seen elsewhere in the administration as well. Asked at a news conference earlier this month whether the administration would support bolstered subsidies for low-income families and the elderly, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman suggested that everyone just wait and see. "I can't respond to that," he said, "other than by saying we're going to do our very best, first, to see what we can accomplish by the reduction in demand for energy."

That's unacceptable. Heating subsidies are not a conservation issue. Vulnerable people need to keep the heat on to keep from getting sick, or worse. Such subsidies help everyone by maintaining public health and safety, ensuring that others don't become ill and spread illness, or resort to hazardous means of heating that can cause fires.

Heating aid for the needy is also a matter of common decency, which ordinary Americans are entirely capable of, though not, so far, their elected leaders.

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