August 11, 2008

Tales of Hardship Will Only Grow Worse ; To High Food and Gas Prices, Add Winter Heat


Earlier this year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders e-mailed constituents and asked them to tell him what was going on in their lives economically. He was shocked by how many people responded - more than 700 in the first week.

A single mother described a winter of living without heat. Someone gave her a wood stove, but she ran out of wood in February. She burned dining room furniture so that she and her 9-year-old son could stay warm. She had draped a blanket from the kitchen doorway, piled pillows on the floor and slept on the pile near the stove.

An oncology social worker reported that his cancer patients could not afford to travel to an outpatient clinic for radiation and chemotherapy treatment due to gas prices. Without financial help from the clinic, the cancer patients could not go for treatment.

A lady who worked two jobs described how she had fallen behind on her bills and how she had resorted to using credit cards more often to pay for basic expenses. There was no fat in her budget to cut.

These stories mirror the experiences I have been hearing about from New Hampshire Legal Assistance clients. I talked to a young college-educated man who had juvenile onset diabetes and no health insurance. He owed more than $60,000 to a hospital for repeated hospitalizations and ER visits. He had no money to pay for insulin or other prescription drugs he needed. He was waiting for a hearing on his Medicaid claim after being denied by the state.

An elderly gentleman whom I had assisted years ago returned to our office complaining about the cost of his medications. The monthly cost of one of his prescribed medications was almost as much as his entire Social Security retirement check. He said his insurance did not cover the drug.

Then there is the disconsolate homeowner who fell hopelessly behind on his mortgage payments. He is in the process of foreclosure, and there is nothing that can be

done legally to save the home. He keeps coming back to our office and remains fixated on stopping the foreclosure, although he has no money to pay off his mortgage arrearage.

The common thread in all these situations is a person who is earning stagnant or declining income while dealing with exploding expenses. The expense could be gasoline, home heating oil, a sub- prime loan, medications or food. Or it could be the cumulative effect of more than one of these items.

Whatever else is going on in the news, there is no bigger story over the past year than the jump in the cost of these necessities. They represent a widespread private bleeding unarticulated to any public outlet.

Winter approaches

We approach the upcoming winter with trepidation. Will people freeze and die in their homes? Will the foreclosures continue? How many more people will give up their health insurance to pay for gasoline, heating oil or groceries?

It is almost as if problems are exceeding any ability to respond. On home heating oil alone, not only low-income but many middle- income people are likely to have serious problems affording the prices this winter. I suppose we can pray for a mild winter, but the weak response to this impending crisis is a form of denial.

Even if there is a significant increase in the federal Low- Income Home Energy Assistance Program, it is not likely to provide enough financial assistance to come close to addressing need. LIHEAP's income guidelines will exclude many who will probably need help. A rational response would be creation of a state-funded fuel assistance program.

Between FY 2003 and FY 2008 there has been a 93 percent increase in the average heating oil bill, and I do not believe that statistic accurately reflects recent ridiculous increases. At the same time, LIHEAP assistance has provided a lower percentage of coverage of families' annual home heating oil cost. The grants covered 36 percent of costs in 2003 and 23 percent in 2008.

Where's the money?

While my eyes tend to glaze when discussion turns to the state budget, the projected $75 million deficit becomes a big deal when thinking about additional state money to help people stay warm this winter.

Where will the money come from?

The lack of state revenue could not be more concrete. Of course, that reality does not seem to count for much. There is a well- established tradition of ignoring and denying human needs while assuming room to cut existing programs regardless of the facts.

Debates on the state budget have typically centered on education funding. Warmth in the winter touches a far more primal place than education funding. It will be interesting to see if the prospect of masses of New Hampshire citizens freezing at home gets the attention it so clearly deserves.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.)

Originally published by JONATHAN P. BAIRD For the Monitor.

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