POLITICS
04/07/2017 02:58 pm ET

Trump's Coldest Cut

The president's budget plan singles out heating assistance for the poor.

WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump doesn’t want the federal government helping poor people heat their homes.

In his budget outline last month, Trump proposed entirely eliminating the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which since the 1980s has helped millions of poorer Americans pay utility bills.

“Compared to other income support programs that serve similar populations, LIHEAP is a lower-impact program and is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes,” the budget says.

Heating assistance is one of many domestic programs Trump would like to reduce or eliminate in order to boost military spending and build a wall along the Mexican border.

About 6 million households are expected to get heating or cooling assistance from LIHEAP this year at a cost of $3.3 billion, or 0.2 percent of discretionary spending. The program also helps people weatherize their homes, and it provides a pot of money specifically for crises, such as a broken heater in winter or an imminent utility shutoff.

Keith Wilson, a disabled former woodworker in Wendell, Minnesota, said he received heating assistance several years ago, but stopped after getting approved for Social Security disability insurance because of arthritis and back problems that left him temporarily unable to walk.

“I’ve only applied for it when I needed it,” Wilson said. “If we didn’t need it, I would let other people use it.”

Unlike Medicaid or food stamps, heating assistance isn’t an “entitlement,” meaning not everyone who is eligible to receive benefits does. Only 19 percent of eligible households are expected to get assistance this year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. The average annual heating benefit was $301 in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. 

Wilson, 60, said his household income declined again after his partner died last year. He’s going to apply for heating assistance again.

“Right now I can’t even afford car repairs,” he said.

Though presidential budgets are generally just conversational documents intended to frame debate, the Trump administration is hoping Congress will take some of its suggestions this month. Lawmakers are under a tight deadline, since without new legislation to fund government operations, the federal government will partially shut down on April 28. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget sent Capitol Hill leaders a list of spending “reduction options” for the rest of the fiscal year, including a 10 percent cut in LIHEAP funding.

Republicans on the Hill have not yet revealed their spending plans, though they have seemed cool to the idea of dramatic changes. There’s been little debate about the many small programs singled out for cuts in Trump’s budget.

The Trump administration has not explained why it thinks LIHEAP is “lower-impact” relative to other government-assistance programs. Several studies have suggested that the program is effective at, you know, helping people pay their utility bills.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the problem with LIHEAP isn’t that it’s a terrible program. It’s that it’s one of more than 80 federal programs that provide benefits to poor people. Rector and some other conservatives view the array of anti-poverty efforts as an uncoordinated sprawl that is out of proportion to the actual poverty problem, which afflicts 13.5 percent of the U.S. population.

“It really is impossible to fix any of this if every one of the 80 programs is sacrosanct,” said Rector, who would prefer to see anti-poverty efforts funded at the state level. “Each of these programs is treated by the left as a beachhead, so if we’re subsidizing energy costs then it must go on forever.”

Outside of Washington, local officials have organized to pressure their congressional representatives to protect heating assistance. Though LIHEAP does have a vocal constituency, policymakers had the gumption to reduce its funding during the Obama years.

Mark Wolfe, director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, an advocacy group for state officials who oversee program benefits, said LIHEAP’s appeal gives it a strong defense.  

“It’s really popular,” Wolfe said. “It’s well known. It’s very strong in so-called Trump states.”

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