Our Opinion: LIHEAP cuts to the state need to be explained

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No three elements of life are more critical to Berkshirites — or to many Americans, for that matter — than food, housing and heat. The news that the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, is lowering its allocation to Massachusetts and other northeastern states is not only unwelcome, it is immoral, ill-conceived and borderline criminal in terms of the real-life dangers such a cutback poses.

LIHEAP aid is essential for helping low-income residents make it through bitter winters, and its effect is multiplied by the fact that such residents can use monies otherwise spent on heat to buy food, make rent or mortgage payments and pay for medical care. Even so, the aid is never enough, and in the case of early winters like the one we are currently experiencing, allocations have already begun to run out.

The Bay State's allocation this year from the federal government totals $136.5 million, which is $11.2 million less than last year — despite the fact that oil, gas and electricity prices are rising. The commonwealth's reduction was more that any other state's, which suggests an ulterior political motive to the cut. The total amount the nation spends on the program is $3.65 billion, an increase of $50 million over last year, and this makes the trimming of the Bay State's slice of the pie even more egregious. To put that figure in perspective, President Trump — who has twice tried to eliminate the program entirely, has threatened to shut down the federal government if Congress does not accede to his $5 billion request to build a wall across the Mexican border.

To make matters worse, state officials expect 20 percent more applicants for heating aid this year. Members of the Berkshires legislative delegation have pledged to do their best to convince Beacon Hill to furnish a supplemental budget allotment from the state, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who represents the Berkshires in Congress, joined other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation in drafting a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar alleging that his department used outdated data to formulate this year's allocation and demanding a rationale for his department's decision to short-change the Bay State.

We hope that the signatures of two U.S. Senators from Massachusetts on the letter, along with that of Mr. Neal — who is poised to take over the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee — will get Secretary Azar's attention and, most important, spur a change in his policy. If a single death occurs due to a lack of adequate funds and the reason turns out to have been motivated by politics, Mr. Azar should be made to answer for it.

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