Our Opinion: Shameful, cynical attack on poor and elderly

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It is difficult to imagine human needs more basic than food, housing and heat. It is equally difficult to imagine how any developed first-world government in the 21st century, regardless of its political system or the state of its economy, could shirk its responsibility to provide these simple basics to all members of its populace. Yet, that is exactly what President Donald Trump proposes in his fiscal 2019 budget.

The Trump budget, while including cuts for public housing and the food stamp program, also seeks for the second year in a row to completely eliminate the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP (Eagle, February 19). This program allocates federal funds through the Department of Health and Human Services to states for assisting those in need of keeping warm in winter and cool in summer by making payments directly to utilities on their behalf.

In Berkshire County, approximately 8,000 households benefit from LIHEAP aid, according to Deborah Leonczyk, executive director of Berkshire Community Action, which supervises the local distribution of funds. "Those who suffer the most are the elderly," Ms. Leonczyk told The Eagle. "Nearly half the folks we serve are seniors. They're the ones who run out of assistance first."

Ms. Leonczyk alluded to a particularly cynical rationale used by Mr. Trump to justify his proposal to completely eliminate heating assisatance: Some states (Massachusetts included) have cutoff moratoriums set in state law that prevent gas and electric utilities from terminating service during winter months to those who cannot afford to pay. Citing these state laws, the president blithely avers that even lacking assistance, no one will freeze to death.

"That's just a pretext," Ms. Leonczyk said, adding that the cutoffs only apply to gas and electricity, not "deliverables," which include oil, propane and wood. "There are a number of folks who have already used up their allocation," she said. "If they can't afford delivery, it won't be delivered." Compounding the problem, the elderly tend to live in older housing stock, which is more likely to use deliverables as a heating source.

Higher energy prices this year have made matters worse — a hike of 50 cents per gallon for oil and 14 cents for propane, as well as increases in gas and electric costs, according to the Energy Information Administration. While $122 million in federal funds were allocated to Massachusetts for this year's assistance program, natural phenomena like the brutal and protracted cold snap around the new year sapped those funds to the point where local agencies are begging their state legislators to appropriate supplemental state funds as a matter of simple survival. In this, Ms. Leonczyk is encountering no resistance. "Talking to our delegation [on this subject] is like preaching to the choir," she said of both the Berkshires' representatives on Beacon Hill and the state's congressional delegation.

From a political standpoint, there are no "optics" more destructive to a politician's image than elderly residents freezing to death because he or she voted against providing sufficient federal funds — which is why Mr. Trump's callous proposal has even encountered resistance among congressional Republicans, particularly those from northern states. For this reason, his draconian suggestion may not survive the budget process, although that can't be said for certain. That he even raised it at all as a way to lower the deficit should cause this president to lower his head in shame — were he capable of feeling any.


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