‘Heating gap’ grows for Connecticut’s poor

The gap between what Connecticut’s poorest families need to heat and light their homes — and what they can actually afford — continues to grow, according to a new study from energy assistance advocates.

About 290,000 households with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level face an average gap $2,304 between their annual energy costs, and their available resources, Operation Fuel reported late last week.

That margin, which represents about a 12 percent difference between costs and income, is up from about $2,100 last year. And advocates say that with no government solution in sight, they fear the problem will get worse in the near future.

“We seem to be taking one step forward and two steps back,” Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, said. “We’re putting people in harm’s way because we don’t want to recognize that we have a problem.”

A family of three with an income equal to 200 percent of the federal poverty level would have earned no more than $38,180 in 2012. For a single individual, the ceiling is just $22,340.

And Wrice said many of those in greatest need of energy assistance in Connecticut are poor, single elderly residents who must can’t even cover all of their shelter, food and medical costs — let alone heating and other energy needs.

“I don’t think those are choices anyone should have to make,” she said.

A private, nonprofit agency, Operation Fuel helped keep about 6,000 households warm last winter, and expects to top that this season.

But Wrice said charities alone cannot assist more than 290,000 households in need.

The primary source of energy assistance for lower-income households is the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program, and that only covers heating and cooling bills, but not all energy costs.

Further complicating matters, Connecticut’s federal assistance for the LIHEAP program continues to shrink.

The LIHEAP allocation last fiscal year was $79.5 million, down from $98.3 million the previous year. And Connecticut’s congressional delegation reported last month that based on the $3.1 billion in home heating assistance funds included in the 2012-13 continuing federal budget resolution the Nutmeg State’s share would be $72.4 million.

That is “grossly insufficient” to meet the need here, said Boston economist Roger Colton, who prepared the new Operation Fuel study.

“The gap is not going to get better any time soon,” Colton said. “It is a large and growing problem.”

Legislators from both sides of the aisle have been skeptical, though, about Connecticut’s ability to boost funding for social services in general.

A plan adopted last week to mitigate the current state budget deficit relied heavily on reductions to social services — though it didn’t reduce energy assistance programs — to wipe nearly $365 million in red ink off the books.

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