Cold stretches fuel assistance, pantry shelves
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare
The bitter cold is making life hard for most people. Furnaces are burning through dollars, car batteries are giving up the ghost, and it's tough to roust oneself from a warm bed to go to work in freezing temperatures. The colorful Christmas lights are packed away, the cookies are a sweet memory, and the bills are coming in thick and fast.
But for the poor, the midwinter doldrums are compounded by a perfect storm of bare food pantries and escalating heating costs.
The Thanksgiving and Christmas push to donate to food banks has passed, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the state's heating assistance program, is burning through its allotment of money.
The state has gone through almost half of its allotment, said Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Kathaleen Gillis.
"Out of the LIHEAP funds we have received so far from the federal government, as of Jan. 11, expenditures were $72,014,614 (48 percent) of the total allocation of $150,287,731 that is to be used for LIHEAP cash and crisis grants," she said.
Gillis said there are still LIHEAP funds on the federal level that have yet to be distributed to the states.
"However, the federal government has not informed us of the amount we could receive, or when we would receive it," she said.
Gillis said DPW has enough money to see the program through this season. It has received fewer applications, but has processed more than $50,000 to date due to improved efficiency.
But one state senator is concerned about the amount allocated to the program on the federal level.
Sen. Bob Casey has asked President Barack Obama to increase the funding by at least a billion dollars, to $4.7 billion, in 2015.
LIHEAP funding was reduced last year as a result of the federal government sequester, and President Obama has suggested a $400 million cut from the program, affecting next year's funding.
"This week's dangerously cold weather is a reminder of the need to adequately fund heating assistance in the coming year.
"In the coming weeks, the administration has a chance to ensure that seniors and working families in Pennsylvania have the resources they need to stay warm during the next winter," Casey said earlier this month.
"Already this year seniors and working families in Pennsylvania have endured $95 million in cuts to heating assistance. I'm urging the administration and Congress to commit to adequately funding this program in the coming year," Casey added.
As if being cold isn't bad enough, needy families are also trying harder than ever to keep food on the table.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, took a hit a few months ago when the 2009 federal economic stimulus package that increased SNAP allocations ended, cutting the program by about $5 billion. Compounding that is the annual post-Christmas drop-off in individual donations.
Although Second Harvest of Allentown suuplies Carbon County's Shepherd House food pantries, individual donations are sparse.
"We haven't had a donation since before Christmas," said Richard Willing, who works at the Lansford Food Pantry. "Before Christmas, the Panther Valley Middle School and St. Luke's Hospital physical therapy department held food drives for us.
"Our donations really drop down. It's a hard time of year for everybody because of the holidays and winter, the cost of oil. But now is the time when people really need it."
Donations typically pick up again around Easter, he said, and in May, when the U.S. Post Office conducts a food drive.
Rita Trucios, who organizes free meals in the Panther Valley through Feed the People, says the organization's efforts are needed now more than ever.
"The need for our service is still true. The rate of unemployment has not changed in our community, and I know money is tight for all on fixed incomes.
"The population we serve do not have cars or if they do, they will not use the gas to come for dinner. The price of oil, gas, food and medication does create a need for programs such as ours. We, too, continue to struggle for donations of uncooked food or funds to help us to continue to serve our community," she said.
LIHEAP in our area
Here are the 2012-13 LIHEAP funds distributed locally:
Carbon County: $918,723.64
Monroe County: $1,404,854.01
Schuylkill County: $2,424,733.98