Heating or eating: Poor face hard choice Kids' low weight, high cost of heat linked in study

September 08, 1992|By Boston Globe

BSTON — BOSTON -- Underscoring the painful choice poor families often make between eating and heating, medical researchers at Boston City Hospital have found that the number of malnourished, low-weight children jumped dramatically following the coldest winter months.

Their study reveals that among poor children treated in the hospital's pediatric emergency room in 1989-91, the percentage who were underweight as a result of malnutrition almost doubled after cold winter months, according to a summary of the research.

The study, which was to be released by the hospital today, comes as a U.S. Senate subcommittee considers cutting the federal fuel assistance program, which provides money to indigent families to help pay heating bills.

The House of Representatives, at the urging of the Bush administration, has already agreed to slash the program's budget, which was $1.5 billion last year, to just under $1 billion for the coming winter, according to Jean Fleischman, director of programs and communication for Citizens Energy Corp., a nonprofit Massachusetts company that strives to make energy available and affordable for low-income families.

Ms. Fleischman's organization made a summary of the report available to the Boston Globe.

The study at BCH, conducted by Dr. Deborah Frank of the hospital's growth and development program, illustrates the plight that needy families often find themselves in as they struggle to pay for soaring heating costs during winter months, when fuel prices often go up.

The research focused on 7,367 poor children between 6 months and 2 years old who were treated at the hospital's pediatric emergency room between July 1989 and June 1991. Children who were white, privately insured or older than 18 months were least likely to be below weight for their age, according to the study. The majority of those suffering from low weight were minority children.

In the two years that the study examined, poor children were more likely to be underweight in the three months following the coldest month than in any other time period. The highest percentage of children suffering from low weight occurred in January 1990 following a numbingly cold December of 1989 when the average temperature was close to 20 degrees.

The study found that the proportion of children with low weight increased from 6 percent in July 1989 to 11 percent in January 1990.

In addition to poor families with children, a large number of elderly and disabled people also are dependent on the fuel assistance program to help pay for heating.

The possibility that the Senate will agree to pare funding for fuel assistance has heightened fears among advocates for low-income families that many more children may be exposed to malnutrition because families choose to use scarce resources to pay for heating rather than for food.

"If the recommendation of the administration and the House goes through the Senate, the program will be gutted," said Mr. Fleischman, whose organization is helping to sponsor today's announcement of the study's findings.

"What we're trying to say is that the situation is already bad but if the fuel assistance program is cut back further, the situation will go from bad to worse. There are kids already hurting at last year's appropriation level. If the Senate does not restore the funding, we're going to see a lot more kids hurting," she said.

Fuel assistance benefits range from $50 to $550. To be eligible for the maximum benefit, a household of four, for instance, may earn up to $15,875 and a single person up to $7,800.

A four-person family earning between $15,876 and $19,050 or a single person earning from $7,801 to $9,420 is eligible for $285 in fuel-assistance benefits.

With the Massachusetts economy still in the doldrums, advocates for children and low-income families worry that a greater number of indigent families will need government help to pay for heating, even as funding is threatened.

Ms. Fleischman said the release of the study was timed to put pressure on the Senate to restore funds to the program.

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