While enjoying summer, it is all too tempting to forget the snow, ice and frigid temperatures that affected the entire area as recently as January of this year.
But low-income families that are still trying to cope with heating bills from last winter can't forget. Neither can the rest of us if we are to avoid a repeat performance of the same problems next winter.
The poor and those living on low fixed incomes have been hit hard from all sides during the past year. They have borne the brunt of rising unemployment rates resulting from the national economic recession. They have suffered from inflation, which continues to erode incomes although at a much lower rate than in recent years. And an ever-increasing share of their limited resources is required for the increased energy costs that in varying degrees have affected us all.
Inflation is obviously abating, and if the administration's predictions of an economic recovery prove true, new employment opportunities could open up later this year. But there is little chance of a significant upturn in the economy before next winter, and the need for energy assistance will be greater than ever. Federal, state and local governments should work together now to improve their ability to meet the need when winter comes.
The burden then falls on society, working mainly through the federal government and its Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, which has demonstrated that government can be responsive to meeting the needs of its less fortunate citizens. It is a good method of applying aid, although there is room for improvement. The level of funding is the most crucial element--the adequacy of the amounts available for individual households to help them meet heating needs. Attention also needs to be given to the timeliness with which the money is made available to recipients.
In fiscal year 1982, the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program is providing $1.875 billion to the states for disbursement. The administration and Congress should increase the level of funding for this program in fiscal year 1983, providing a percentage increase that will at least offset the rise in energy costs.
It's important for Congress to appropriate the money. It's also important to do so early enough to afford the states the lead time they need in planning to administer the funds. The leftover assistance funds in the current fiscal year have resulted partly from the rush with which the states had to get their act together late last fall.
There is still another consideration-- the current inadequacies in the level of funding per household. The maximum available to low-income Maryland residents during the 1981-82 heating season, as an example, was $200. Yet the average annual gas heating bill in the metropolitan area for that period was about $600. Oil and electricity heating bills also obviously exceeded the maximum energy assistance award level. While not suggesting that the assistance payment be designed to cover completely all energy expenses, some improvement seems to be in order.
There are those who believe the solution to the problem is for utilities to absorb the energy assistance costs. Doing so, of course, would result in higher utility rates. Is that the best way to provide assistance?
Most people would probably agree that helping the poor to pay for fundamental energy needs is an obligation of our society as a whole, just as Social Security payments, welfare for the needy, food stamps and other such programs are responsibilities shared by all Americans to help those less able to pay their own way.
That obligation goes beyond merely parceling out available energy assistance funds. Governments must cooperate in a new effort to make sure aid to defray the energy costs of the poor is applied in the most efficient way.
Next fall will be too late for rational planning. Even the rest of the summer may leave too little time to get ready. While the memory of January's weather is still relatively fresh, let us make a concerted effort to ensure that next winter will be a better one for all.