WASHINGTON – The $2.9 million in federal fuel assistance released to Maryland this week still is not enough to help the state’s most impoverished families keep warm while heating oil prices remain sky-high, advocates said.
The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program money that was released to the state Wednesday comes on top of a Feb. 10 disbursement of $3.2 million, and is in addition to millions in federal aid the state receives annually. But some advocates still are not satisfied.
“I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface for this need,” said Mary Ellen Vanni, executive director of the Fuel Fund for Maryland, a private non-profit organization. The Fuel Fund provides financial aid to help Maryland’s poorest families through times like this, when the weather is cold, and fuel costs become overwhelming.
Low-income families are “in dire straits,” Vanni said. “We’ve had more calls this month for assistance with oil than we had all of last year, just because of the price.”
Fuel oil prices reached a record high last week, according to fuel distributors around the state. Some were reporting prices of $1.70 a gallon, up from 99 cents just a month earlier.
Legislative offices also are swamped with complaints from residents who say they are having a hard time coping with what they see as outrageously high fuel prices.
“Calls to our office have picked up steadily,” said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore. “People are asking that we try and do something.”
Vanni said that about 225,000 Maryland families fall below poverty levels. While she could not estimate how many of them heat their homes with oil, she said that even if it were a fraction of those families, the recent $6 million in additional funding would provide minimal relief.
If just one-fourth of the state’s poor families heat their homes with oil, this month’s extra federal funding would only provide each family with about an additional $100 for the winter, she said.
“That’s not a lot of oil,” she said. “I mean, that wouldn’t even fill a tank.”
Vanni estimates that the Maryland Energy Assistance Program only serves about one-third of the neediest families, and many of the rest turn to the Fuel Fund, she said.
“We’ve had a family that had to turn an oil truck away because the price was $180,” and the woman had only budgeted $100 for oil, Vanni said.
Higher fuel costs have strapped families nationwide. The demand for assistance has been so great that LIHEAP funds are depleted, White House spokesman Steve Boyd said Thursday.
Within the next 10 days, President Clinton will ask Congress to appropriate $600 million to replenish LIHEAP, Boyd said. Even if Congress says no, Boyd said, the administration believes there are other federal disaster relief funds that could be used for heating fuel assistance.
But Vanni says that the additional $600 million for LIHEAP is “essential.”
“You have a cold house, you can’t eat, you can’t study,” she said of low- income families facing high fuel costs. “It effects every aspect of a family’s life.”