SOME OF THE Sun Belt members of Congress are still squawking about the distribution formula, but federal money is on its way to help the poor pay their fuel bills this winter. The Southerners' complaint is a dandy: they're upset that most of the money is going to cold places. To hear these lawmakers tell it, just because poor people in the South are deprived of New England winters is no reason to treat them unequally when it comes to heating-bill assistance. And even though they're unhappy with the legislation, the measures approved by Congress so far for this winter and beyond do represent compromises aimed at cooling down the regional opposition.
At least now there seems to be some sense of urgency about getting this money to the states -- cold or not -- since winter won't wait. Thousands of poor families in the District, Maryland and Virginia will need emergency help -- direct payments for fuel deliveries, clothing, blankets, temporary shelter and food and medicines. Following up on President Carter's pledge to "expedite" this aid, officials of the Community Services Administration and other federal agencies are sending out checks to the states, on which most of the responsibility rests for getting information to those eligible for help.
Payments will average more than $200 for each qualified family here, which won't buy a whole lot of oil these days, but which nevertheless can spell relief in many households. In the works are one-time check payments to the aged, blind and disabled people who are recipients under the Supplemental Security Income program. That comes to approximately 15,000 residents in the District, 48,600 in Maryland and 80,500 in Virginia. Other money will be disbursed by the District and the two states for residents whose income is not more than 25 percent above the poverty level (for example, an urban family of four with an annual income of up to $8,375 can qualify). Still other aid will be available for emergency help.
So far, then, the federal response is looking a little better than it did last year, when too little arrived much too late. The frightening part of it is that more people are going to need more help -- and Congress should stop treating this assistance as part of an energy pork barrel instead of relief for poor families in danger of freezing.