This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.
For the second year in a row, President Trump’s budget plan eliminates the program that provides heating and cooling support for to 6 million households in the United States. To justify the cut to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Trump claimed it is “low-performing,” “ineffective,” and has “difficulty demonstrating effective outcomes.”
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I’m here to offer an effective outcome: Me.
I grew up in a rural Western Massachusetts town surrounded by forest, farms, and shuttered mills, where it was a 30 minute drive to the nearest grocery store. Winters were a wonderland filled with snow days, cross-country skiing, roaring fires, and sledding. However, when I was 12 years old, my dad left and took our financial stability with him. After 21 years of marriage, my suddenly single-income mum had to find a way to pay the mortgage, keep food in the fridge, put gas in the car, and — in a town where snowfall is measured in feet rather than inches — heat a drafty home through the New England winters.
The original 1970s heating system was intended for a single floor house. Despite its best efforts, the heat would be sucked into the large, dank cement basement, and never reach the second floor that my crafty grandpa added himself. When the temperatures dropped outside, regularly into the single digits, the painful damp cold seeped through the walls and into my bones. I would layer socks with slippers and pair flannel pajamas with sweaters and thick robes. I walked around the house wrapped in blankets, gripped with a constant panic because I could not get warm. Then, when I looked at the thermostat, I would find the already-inadequate heating system was only set to 55 — nowhere near the temperature that could have forced the heat up from the basement and into the termite-riddled corners of our house.
But my mum was rationing the heat.
We staged silent, passive-aggressive battles over the temperature for years. I could not understand why we didn’t set the heat to 70 or 72 like my friends’ warm, comfortable houses. So, as the temperatures went down, I would tip-toe to the thermostat at the top of the basement stairs and crank the heat up twenty degrees. Then, when I was caught — and I always got caught — conflict would erupt.
During one particularly tense argument, my mum snapped and told me that the only reason we could even afford to keep the heat in the 50s was the government assistance that helped pay for the oil that heated the house. She was still paying for heat, but the program helped shave a few dollars off each gallon. If I kept turning up the thermostat to more bearable temperatures, we would run out of oil for the month.
Our family only talked about finances during arguments like that: Once someone had been pushed too far, the truth would come rushing out. I pieced together my understanding of money, and adulthood, and class from my memories of those moments. But during the winters when I was still a teenager, I couldn’t get past the disbelief. How could turning the dial to 70 mean we would be without heat in the heart of a Massachusetts winter? How could regions with extreme cold allow residents to live without a basic need like heat?
It took years for me to realize my mum was hiding our financial problems because she was trying to protect me. She was working hard to help our family recover in the aftermath of my financially abusive father. My dad hadn’t allowed my mum to work, so when he left, she didn’t have a career to fall back on. She paid the bills by begging friends and the family priest to let her clean their houses and edged her way up to juggling a variety of part-time jobs: temping in offices, restocking clothes at TJ Maxx, and working the night-shift as a receptionist in the emergency room. During this time, LIHEAP was a short-term resource that helped pull us out of a terrifying financial black hole.
When my mom finally secured a full-time receptionist position, she immediately donated to fuel assistance programs because she was so grateful that LIHEAP had given us a chance to stabilize financially. It didn’t keep my house luxuriously warm, but it kept us safe and alive in dangerously cold weather.
Today, only 20 percent of all the households in the US that qualify for LIHEAP actually receive assistance paying for heat or weatherizing their houses. That means for the 6 million families who receive help, there are another 24 million families who are eligible but go without. The program has a brutal, “first come, first serve” policy: When each state’s LIHEAP money runs out, agencies stop accepting applications for assistance — often before winter ends. The families lucky enough to receive LIHEAP can find themselves exhausting their funds before winter is over. The remaining families are left with impossible choices: whether to pay for the heat or the mortgage, whether to live with the cold or to put kerosene heaters in the house.
Trump’s budget would make that a reality for everyone.