Cuts in the deficit cut to the heart of families' survival

February 15, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Teresa Thacker is a mother of four. Her husband, Richard, is a carpenter. They live in public housing in Cockeysville. And every month they struggle to get by.

Their story isn't remarkable. That's what makes it important. It's the story of typical people leading typical lives.

And, at the same time, it's the story of the federal budget and what it can mean to ordinary folks.

"We live paycheck to paycheck," Teresa says. "At the end of each month, we pay off whatever is most pressing. A lot of times, we're paying turnoff notices. You learn to know when to pay which bill before they cut you off."

Her big concern, besides food, is the utility bill. Many people are actually forced to decide between food and energy. The professionals who deal with low-income families call this dilemma eat vs. heat.

The Thackers get help with the heat.

They're in a program that allows them to pay off their yearly electric bill in 12 equal segments. In their case, that comes to $130 a month, meaning they're not faced with the $250 bills that can come with winter, especially this winter.

They get other help. The Maryland Energy Assistance Program provides 90,000 low-income families, including the Thackers, with money to put toward the heat bill.

"We got $181 last year," she says. "This year, it will be $260. As a working family, we don't qualify for much. But this really helps."

The money for this program comes to Maryland from Washington. But down in Washington, there is a new reality. The New Democrats are in power. Bill Clinton, the pragmatist, the deficit-fighter, says we have to tighten our belts.

And so, in his new budget proposal, Clinton wants to cut the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in half -- from $1.44 billion to $730 million.

The government tightens its belt.

And real people get squeezed.

"I was floored when I saw that proposal," Teresa says.

Teresa Thacker, homemaker, mother of four, is a federal-budget watcher. Most of us are not. Most of us know only that the budget is too big, the deficit obscenely large, taxes too high and that something must be done.

In this new age, if Clinton wants $700 million more for Head Start, he finds the money in heating assistance. Officials in the Clinton administration have been floating the idea of taxing such items as food stamps in order to help pay for programs to get people off welfare.

All money has to come from somewhere. But should it really be coming from the working poor?

What the proposed budget cut in energy assistance means to Maryland, according to state officials, is that its grant would drop from $22.657 million to $11.1 million. That means half the money is gone. That means fewer people get help, and the people who get help get less money. It means that money may be available only for crisis intervention.

It may mean the Thackers get cut out.

We hear a lot these days about rights and privileges. Do people, for instance, have the right to health care? That will be at the center of the health-care debate.

How about food? Shelter? Heat?

You can't cut off people's heat in the winter in Maryland. That seems only fair. It's also fair that utility companies eventually are paid. Come April, the cutoff notices get sent out.

There are no real villains here. Usually, utility companies try to work with people. There is the Fuel Fund of Central Maryland, which helps another 5,000 families who have gone through their state grant.

Still, there isn't always enough.

And, if the Clinton bill goes through as proposed, there will be much less.

In the old days, Reagan and Bush would propose similar cuts, and the Democratic Congress would fight them off. Are the Democrats going to fight Clinton in the same way?

Some liberals are speaking out. They say the cuts can come from elsewhere. The defense budget gets mentioned a lot. Whatever happened to the peace dividend, by the way?

Teresa Thacker says she cuts corners wherever she can. She shops for bargains. Most of the family entertainment comes in front of a TV set. She clips coupons. There never seems to be enough.

"This money makes a difference," she says. "The money we have left over, we use for groceries. There are so many people like us, who are hard-working families, who need this program. It would have a devastating effect on so many people if it gets cut."

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