MAKING a choice between heating and eating is not one most of us would relish, but it is a way of life at times in more than 10,000 households in and around Toledo each winter. These are families who get help with their gas or electric bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Under HEAP, low-income families get once-a-winter grants of up to $175 to help pay for their primary source of heating fuel, although it's usually only enough to avoid having utilities shut off for nonpayment. The money goes directly to the utility company, so it cannot be used for any other purpose.
The state also kicks in some funding, making Ohio one of only 16 states to provide summer air conditioning for a limited number of elderly and disabled people with breathing problems.
HEAP is a 22-year-old program that always seems to be held hostage to the vagaries of the federal budget process in Washington. And Congress has not been overly generous. Total appropriations in the program's first year, 1982, were $1.875 billion. This year, it's $1.88 billion, an increase of just $5 million in 22 years.
Since the cost of living has more than doubled in that time, fewer people can be served, meaning that funding has fallen far behind need.
That makes HEAP one of those programs that cannot afford to be too successful since there isn't nearly enough money to go around. Officials say they can help only about one in five families who qualify with incomes just above the official poverty level.
At any rate, HEAP's funding is being held up in a budget bill that Congress is due to consider when it returns to Washington after its August recess. The House Appropriations Committee has recommended a funding increase to $2 billion, a spit in the ocean compared to what's being spent on the war in Iraq.
Congress should have no qualms about boosting funding for HEAP, particularly since the economy apparently isn't picking up with the speed expected.
Because HEAP's funding must be secured before cold weather sets in, now is the time for Congress to act. Now, so that fewer northwest Ohio residents are forced to make the awful choice between heating and eating.