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States with colder winters more aid to cover rising costs

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – Raymond Archer was on the verge of losing his home in a cold Maine winter last year when government aid came to the rescue and he stands ready for an even tougher season.

Archer, a 50-year-old construction worker who has been out of work for nine months during the COVID-19 pandemic, spent $ 1,000 last year on heating assistance to keep his fuel tank full. He said he may need help again, along with many others, due to rising fuel prices and predictions of a cold winter.

“If they hadn’t helped me, I don’t want to sound harsh, I probably would have turned it down last year,” said Archer, who rents a house in Alfred, about 30 miles (48 km) from Portland. … “The only reason I still have a home is because they helped me.”

READ MORE: Heating bills to rise as inflation hits energy prices

For Archer and others in need of help when winter comes, news about federal aid and heating costs is mixed. The average home heating cost this winter is expected to be $ 972, up from $ 888 last year but below the October forecast of $ 1,056, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Association of Energy Assistance Directors.

The Biden administration has also more than doubled funds this season for the federal low-income household energy assistance program (LIHEAP). The program, which provides money to some homeowners and renters to pay for heating, typically raises between $ 3 billion and $ 4 billion and serves 5 million households. The administration has added an additional $ 4.5 billion through the American Rescue Plan.

But with colder than normal winters expected in parts of the country, it is unclear if that will be enough. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said that states such as Montana and Alaska can experience particularly harsh winters.

And not everyone who could profit from LIHEAP gets them. Some don’t even know they qualify, Wolfe said.

“A lot of people who are eligible do not think they are eligible because they think it’s only for the very poor,” he said. “I think what we would like to do is encourage families to apply, even if they think it won’t help.”

Eligibility for LIHEAP money is income dependent. The state manages the money and local agencies provide it to pay the bills.

The amount of money residents receive plays an important role in their quality of life during the winter, Wolfe said. Rising energy costs and a lack of assistance could force families to choose “between heating and food,” Wolfe said.

Many families have used the child tax credit to pay their electricity bills, Wolfe said. This benefit will expire in January unless Congress decides to extend it as part of the $ 2 trillion social and environmental bill on hold or other legislation.

The amount of LIHEAP aid that residents will receive this winter is likely to total “not enough to cover all the bills, but certainly much more than ours,” Wolfe said.

In Maine, people in need of assistance will have access to an additional $ 55 million this year due to increased funding, said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership, an organization that includes LIHEAP stewards in the state.

LIHEAP money is critical to many mostly rural families who rely heavily on expensive liquid fuel heating systems. Heating oil prices are higher than gas prices, although both have increased this year.

“Gas prices are definitely high,” Hannan said. “Oil and Gas.”

Rising fuel costs come at a time when many low-income families are also struggling to cope with rising housing, food and electricity costs and the ongoing burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About a quarter of Maine residents struggle to pay household expenses, said Alison Weiss, spokeswoman for Maine Equal Justice, an economic security advocacy group. At the national level, this is about a third. Rising spending is driving low-income residents in need of more direct financial support from the government, Weiss said.

“We want to make sure that everyone who is eligible for help participates in programs that will help them this winter,” Weiss said.

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