America's deep freeze is no time to be stingy about heating homes of the poor

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Mark Wolfe is an energy economist and executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA), which represents the state program directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Low-income families struggle to pay their home energy bills in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Record cold temperatures are bearing down along the East Coast and across the Midwest, and, based on US Energy Information Administration estimates, the cost of home heating will likely exceed the cost of previous years.

If this isn't bad enough, the federal government has reduced spending on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), its primary program to help poor families pay their home energy bills. Since 2010, the budget has been incrementally reduced from $5.1 billion to $3.4 billion, reducing the number of families that can be helped by more than 1.2 million families (out of approximately 7.3 million).
President Donald Trump initially proposed eliminating funding for energy assistance this year. Fortunately, for the more than 6 million families that are expected to receive help, Trump lost interest in pursuing the elimination of LIHEAP and Congress included $3.4 billion for the program, the same level as was provided last year.
Imagine if Trump's proposal has been accepted by Congress -- the impact on poor families would have been profound. The families expected to receive assistance this year would have had to make the types of choices most of us never experience: to stay warm or to feed their families.
    Higher energy costs are especially devastating for low-income families because energy is one of the essential bills that families cannot ignore. Houses without heat can have frozen and burst pipes. Children are more likely to go without food, be hospitalized or be at risk of developmental delays, and the elderly and sick are more vulnerable to temperature-related health threats, including heart attacks and hypothermia.
    So just how cold is it?
    So just how cold is it?

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    So just how cold is it? 01:56
    For perspective, the average family paid about $783 for home energy last year. This year it will be at least $861. For the average family, this represents about two cents of every dollar they earn. But for low-income families it represents about 10 cents of every dollar earned, and for the poorest families it can be as high as 25 cents of every dollar earned.
    For families using home heating oil and propane, the average costs are even higher because of production shortfalls caused by increased demand. Propane and heating oil users are expected to pay over $250 more than last year for the same amount of fuel. Heating oil users are expected to spend $1,506 this winter, while propane users are expected to spend $1,676.
    Energy affordability is a problem that has a relatively simple solution: providing adequate funding. Most low-income families just need a bit of help in paying their heating bills. In fact, according to LIHEAP calculations, energy assistance on average only pays about half of the cost of home heating. The family can and does pay the rest.
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    And here's the reality: The impact of rising prices combined with cold weather conditions will force millions of poor families to make tough choices this winter. LIHEAP can and will help. However, the deep cuts to the program will limit the ability of states to help families as the winter heating season progresses.
    LIHEAP has long received strong support from Democrats and Republicans because as a nation we have decided that our most vulnerable citizens should not suffer from lack of heat during the cold winter months or high temperatures in the summer.
    As Congress considers final appropriations bills later this month, they need to restore funding back to $5.1 billion for this program to make sure families facing high energy bills this winter won't be left out in the cold.