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6 Ways to Give or Get Help Paying for Heat This Winter

With winter fast approaching, and the economic crisis meaning thinner paychecks for many, it's not surprising that a growing number of poorer families are desperately seeking help to meet the soaring cost of home heating.

Two people shoveling snow

What may be surprising, however, is the grim reality that hundreds of Americans succumb to the bitter conditions every year. Data collected in 2001 indicates that nearly 600 deaths a year are caused by extreme winter weather. Over half of these will be elderly and many more will be children or disabled adults, in homes unable to afford adequate heating. Largely incapable of fending for themselves, these are the people who more fortunate consumers can be thinking of as the temperature drops. This winter, the numbers could be higher.

For America's financially disadvantaged, it is estimated that paying the monthly winter fuel bill equals a 30% income investment, as compared to a 10% cost for more economically advantaged families. Sadly, such an expense each month only serves to increase the gap between "the haves and the have-nots." Research compiled by the National Fuel Funds Network proves that fuel poverty leads to "heat or eat situations, [where] families strive in vain for a safe balance between paying for food and paying for energy."

For those able to help and those in need of assistance, there is hope.

  1. The Low-Income Housing and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is one of the most effective programs in the battle against fuel poverty in the USA. Since 1981, LIHEAP has provided funding to heat homes through the cold stretch from October to March, but officials there indicate that they only reach 20% of the population that requests their services. $5.1 billion is allocated to LIHEAP for winter 08-09.
  2. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) addresses the fuel poverty problem from the pragmatic perspective of home conditioning, offering funds to help homeowners improve the energy efficiency of their property. During the last 30 years, they have served 5.6 million low-income families.
  3. In addition to the help that federal programs provide, there are numerous organizations, within close proximity of any community that reach out to Americans in need. Look for a Salvation Army, an American Red Cross, or a local advocacy center in your town or city. If you can, donate warm bedding, coats, scarves, gloves, and mittens to local community assistance organizations.
  4. Most local electric companies offer assistance programs to their customers. The Upper Peninsula Power Company in Michigan, for example, offers a Winter Protection Plan that assures eligible elderly and low-income customers will not have their power turned off between November 1 and March 31. In Massachusetts, local electric providers throughout the state contribute to the Good Neighbor Energy Fund which helps people who do not qualify for state or federal programs. Electric consumers can also contribute to the fund through donations sent in with their monthly payments.
  5. You can engage public officials in your area regarding regional and state programs that promote affordable warmth. LIHEAP publishes a Twitter feed that keeps citizens informed about ways to lobby and support their campaign. The National Fuel Funds Network is organizing a Day of Action in Washington DC on February 10, 2009.
  6. Participate in home winterization initiatives in your neighborhood. Participating in initiatives that improve insulation, heating options, and living conditions for a variety of people, may be the sort of grass roots movement that could reverse the terrible reality of fuel poverty in the United States.
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