WASHINGTON (AP) - States got more than $845 million in federal home heating aid on Thursday, but the latest round of government funding won't take the chill from the fuel assistance program, which is being cut by about a quarter this winter.
New England, with its reliance on costly home heating oil, is expected to be especially hit hard by the spending cut. Several Northeast states already have reduced heating aid benefits this winter.
"At a time when many people, especially our seniors, struggle daily to meet their basic needs and many others are still looking for work, this is a true life-saver," said Rep. William Keating, D-Mass.
The government said it was releasing the money to help poor families and seniors stay warm. The money had been expected by state officials who are struggling to cope with a reduction of about $1.2 billion this winter in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
The latest funding comes in addition to the $1.7 billion that states have already received this winter for fuel assistance.
The program will get about $3.5 billion this year, down from about $4.7 billion last winter as Congress struggles with tight budgets and deficits.
Massachusetts will receive $21 million, bringing the state's total to $99 million this winter, said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
"It's not hyperbole to say that without this lifeline, seniors, the disabled, and working poor families would be choosing between food, medicine, and heating their homes during a brutal New England winter," Kerry said. "We've been working a long time to get our state's fair share, and this down payment comes just in time for the holidays."
Higher home heating oil prices and more families seeking aid because of the sour economy are straining resources. The number of heat aid applicants has increased more than 10 percent this winter, Boston officials say.
Families can expect to pay, on average, about $3,300 to heat a home with oil this winter in New England, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. That's about $500 more than last winter. About half of the region's homes use oil heat, the group said.
Members of Congress from New England have vowed to fight for additional funding when lawmakers return from their holiday break next month.
"LIHEAP is a proven, cost-effective program that provides critical heating assistance to our most vulnerable citizens," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "Too many of my colleagues think this is the kind of federal spending that needs to be cut. The reality is these cuts are coming just when people need it most and is only adding to the real hardships facing Rhode Islanders in need."
Rhode Island is expected to get about $23 million this winter, down from $31.1 million last winter when more than 36,000 Rhode Islanders received assistance. Given this year's spending cuts, Reed said, agencies distributing aid will likely either serve fewer clients or reduce the level of assistance.
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