THE PRICE OF home heating oil is going up faster than we thought. A few days ago we said in this space that, by the time your furnace goes to work this fall, the cost per gallon will be "over 70 cents and rising fast." It turns out that the average price in the Washington area is already 82 cents a gallon -- a 70 percent increase since this time last year. It's going to be an unpleasant jolt even for those families well up the income ladder. For those at the bottom, it will be unmanageable. The case for fuel stamps becomes increasingly urgent.
Fuel stamps, following the principle of food stamps, would be a crude but quick response to the implications of heating bills that may shortly be almost twice last year's level. The support for the idea is, unfortunately, far from unanimous. The Wall Street Journal recently argues that the manifold overlapping welfare programs already in effect have largely eliminated poverty from this country. Why add still another program? The answer is that this aid provides very little flexibility to meet sudden large changes in costs. While much of this aid is adjusted for average inflation rates, that average will not begin to reflect what's about to happen to those families who depend on oil heat.
Most American homes are heated by gas. Fewer than one out of every four uses oil, and that minority is concentrated in the Northeastern and North Central states with their cold winters. The impact of higher heating oil prices will be regional rather than national.
Throughout the northern states there were bitter protests last year from people, particularly elderly people, who even then were barely able to afford fuel. It is possible to argue that elderly people lived in Boston and Buffalo before there were oil furnaces, or indeed before there was any central heating at all. But the techniques for surviving without central heating have been largely forgotten in this country. To force people, particularly elderly people, abruptly into the conditions of a century ago would be extremely harsh. A civilized and prosperous society does not leave people to freeze, any more than it lets them starve. Society may suspect that some of the poor may be malingerers, or drunks or profligates -- but common decency requires that even the most dubious cases are not left without those few rudimentary necessities.
Several years from now, people will have had time to adapt their houses and their lives to higher oil costs. Congress will have had time to accommodate the broader welfare laws to the special hardships created by the price of oil. That is a good reason for building a sunset clause into a fuel-stamp program, ending it automatically two or three winters from now. But it is no reason to do nothing for the winter immediately ahead.