UNLIKELY AS IT might seem, winter is coming. Within two months, most people even in this mild and salubrious climate will have their furnaces running. When that season arrived last year, heating oil cost 50 cents a gallon. This year it will be over 70 cents and rising fast. It may well approach $1 a gallon before the winter's over. Since a house with an oil burner uses, on the average, 1,200 gallons a year, the annual cost of heating that house will jump from $600 to nearly twice as much, between the beginning of last winter and the end of the next one. What about those families who are poor, and already live at the bare edge of possibility?
The Carter administration keeps talking, hopefully but vaguely, about aid to the poor. Unfortunately, Mr. Carter intends to provide that aid out of the revenues of the forthcoming tax on windfall oil profits - which is another version of the same old mistake. The windfall tax is not progressing as rapidly as he had expected. It has yet to begin moving through the Senate Finance Committee - Congress' own Slough of Despond. By designing the tax to support synthetic fuels production plus mass transit plus aid to the poor, the president has ensured that just about every lobby in Washington will have an interest in it. The Carter style of linkage has created a formidably broad opposition to the bill, ranging from oil producers fighting the tax to environmentalists fighting the synthetic fuel plants. It seems hardly likely that this cumbersome mechanism can bring help to the people in greatest need before frost comes.
A more reliable expedient would be fuel stamps analogous to the food stamps that enable poor families to cope with rising prices at the grocery store. This proposal has its drawbacks, as our mail on the subject has copiously pointed out. Economists argue that the same purpose can be achieved more efficiently by expanding the present system of welfare benefits and, for the working poor, income tax credits. But that kind of change in the welfare and tax systems opens up large questions of income distribution that, in a time of rapid inflation, will not be resolved easily or quickly.
There is also the objection that fuel stamps would merely encourage people to drive more and waste gasoline. But the primary purpose of fuel stamps would be to provide home heating and prevent suffering when the temperature falls. Stamps for gasoline could presumably be issued only to people who have to commute long distances to jobs at low wages. These people are a small number, living under great pressure, and not many of them spend their weekends at Ocean City.
No doubt there are tidier and more elegant ways to help families with low incomes, as oil prices soar. Fuel stamps are a crude and rough solution. But there is one thing to be said for them. Unlike the other possibilities, they could be put into operation quickly, before winter comes.