WASHINGTON – A state program that helps low-income residents pay their heating bills has received more applications than it had at the same time last year, when demand for the program was the highest in nearly a decade.
About 30,000 households have already applied for assistance from the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, which expects that at least 75,000 families will apply this winter for a stipend between $215 and $396.
Officials said applications could exceed last winter’s total, when 77,828 households got MEAP stipends. That was the most since the winter of 1994 when 97,000 families got help, said Mary Lou Kueffer, director of the state Office of Home Energy Programs.
The increase in requests comes at a time when both heating fuel costs and jobless rates are on the rise.
Congress allocated just under $1.8 billion for the program nationally last year, but is wrangling over this winter’s funding, with the House proposing $1.7 billion for energy assistance programs and the Senate pushing for $2 billion.
“Poverty rates are up and there’s a strong argument to push for the $2 billion,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
Depending on which version passes, Maryland would get between $26 million and $31 million to dole out this winter. It got more than $28 million from the federal government last winter.
Whichever version passes, energy assistance programs nationwide will still be “seriously underfunded,” according to a letter from congressional supporters of the program. The Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition estimates that only 15 percent of the country’s 30 million eligible households receive help paying their heating bills.
Kueffer said the rise in applications this fall could be attributed a variety of factors, from increased poverty to residents simply planning ahead.
Last season’s large number of requests was due, in part, to one of the coldest winters on record. This winter has been harder to predict, however, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saying there is an even chance for either above- or below-normal temperatures.
Whatever the temperature, heating bills are expected to increase.
Nationwide, natural gas bills are expected to rise 9 percent, said Dave Costello, an Energy Information Administration economist. He said last winter’s cold created a shortage in natural gas reserves that forced energy providers to buy more.
“You can argue that we’re still paying for last year’s winter,” he said.
Even though Congress has not yet approved funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Department of Health and Human Services this week gave states an advance on their allocation so people can pay their bills now. It took Congress until January of this year, three months after the budget deadline, to approve funding for LIHEAP for the harsh winter of 2002-2003.
Maryland got a $10 million advance this week that will be counted against whatever amount is ultimately approved by Congress this winter.
Beginning next week, eligible Maryland households will receive their stipend, an average of $314, Kueffer said Friday. The funding will arrive just before the cold weather hits the region — and residents’ pocketbooks.
“Mid-November is the crisis time for applicants,” Kueffer said. “That’s when people start needing help the most with their payments.”
Residents can call 1-800-352-1446 for MEAP information or visit the Department of Human Resources Web site at www.dhr.state.md.us.