As the temperatures drop, so has the amount of funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program available to Massachusetts.
This is the second year the Bay State will get less federal LIHEAP money, although the national total for the program increased. Mass gets less than $115 million to start the winter—that’s 90% of its funding, but still $20 million less than it received two years ago.
Joe Diamond is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, which oversees much of the intake process for LIHEAP statewide. He says heating bills can skyrocket for thousands of households that need assistance.
“Public utilities, while they can’t be shut off in the middle of the winter, they run up bills and debts such that when the winter’s over and utility companies are in a position to seek payment, they might take steps to shut people off,” says Diamond. “And so, people are vulnerable to that kind of economic hardship.”
Massachusetts’ congressional delegation, led by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, is asking Health and Human Services to explain how the Trump administration is allocating the LIHEAP money. The funding formula changed a year ago and may favor states that use electricity both for heating and cooling, unlike New England.
Connecticut and Rhode Island are the only others seeing double-digit percentage losses in funding.
Diamond says he and other advocates are urging state lawmakers to help with the gap as well. Considering historical experience, he says he’s hopeful.
“Over the past 20 years, about half the time, the state legislature has responded to our information and our requests for additional state resources,” says Diamond. “Because they’ve recognized how critical it is to have adequate fuel assistance for vulnerable families.”
Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker authorized more state funding for LIHEAP, in part to compensate for federal funding cuts. Eleven million dollars of that money is still available for this season.
Asked for comment, a Department of Housing and Community Development spokesperson said the state will continue to monitor LIHEAP funding all winter.
In the meantime, Diamond stresses that in order to avoid tough choices this winter, families should sign up now for assistance with their heating bills.
“They have to make these excruciating decisions between heating, and then, other essential aspects of life,” Diamond said, “food, shelter, clothing, and even medicine.”
The LIHEAP program helped more than 160,000 Massachusetts residents in the 2018 fiscal year.