As energy costs rise, families depend on neighbors' kindness

Consuming Interests


Give yourselves a pat on the back, America.

In light of soaring energy costs, Americans have given generously this cold season by contributing $34.7 million more than usual to help low-income customers pay their heating bills, says the Washington-based National Community Action Foundation. Normally, about $100 million is raised each year.

The good news comes just as the Department of Energy released predictions that, despite mild weather and lower-than-expected prices, residential heating bills still will be 24 percent higher this season than a year ago.

So congratulations, rate-payers, stockholders and utility industry foundations, for recognizing that the less fortunate needed more help this season.

But here's the thing: so much more help is still needed.

"It really speaks well of the American people," says David Bradley, executive director of the nonprofit organization that serves as an advocate and lobbyist for low-income programs. "We're a compassionate country and we always have been.

"But even with the $34.7 million more, it is still a drop in the ocean when it comes to the increased energy costs we're experiencing this year, especially for low-income customers. I wish it were 20 times that or 50 times that. We don't have enough to meet the demand."

Why is that?

Fuel costs are still fairly high, because of cold weather in other parts of the world and uncertainties over oil supplies in Nigeria, Iraq and Iran, the Energy Department says.

Americans in poverty would have to spend about one-fourth of their entire income this year just to maintain low levels of heating and appliance use. Households eligible for low-income energy assistance will spend an average of $1,612 for all their energy costs in fiscal year 2006, according to a report by Economic Opportunity Studies, a nonprofit charitable organization.

Combined, the energy bills of low-income Americans will exceed $53 billion this year -- not just counting heating, but also cooling.

And the increased rates don't strike just the poor, of course. All consumers can expect bills averaging $2,030 this year.

But federal assistance resources available for this winter are about $2.05 billion (as of Feb. 15), lower than either last year or five years earlier.

"Our member community action agencies are on the front line, helping people with energy assistance," Bradley says. "They are overwhelmed by visits and calls from desperate, hard-working families."

So far this year, community action agencies around the country are seeing 15 percent to 20 percent more people who show up looking for help with their energy bills.

So even though electric and gas utilities have increased their corporate gifts and their public fundraising programs, even though collectively 31 companies' shareholders and customers raised new contributions of $34.7 million, even though eight local foundations and other large donors from around the country contributed $5.7 million, and four companies in domestic oil and gas production or transportation industry donated $1.7 million. ...

The reality is that way more is needed.

So what does that mean?

If you haven't given, consider doing so. If you've got a little extra thanks to tax returns, a work bonus or unexpected windfall, consider giving. Whether it's to your local fuel fund, community action agency or other nonprofit, reach down deep and kick in some more if possible.

All you creative, action-oriented consumers out there can mix fun and philanthropy by throwing a party and asking participants for energy assistance donations to the poor, if you're really feeling the spirit.

But if you can't give and still want to help, contact your legislators while Congress continues to debate releasing another billion dollars to low-income energy assistance.

And if you're looking to shame others into lending a hand, Bradley suggests looking to the five major oil-producing companies that recorded $113 billion in profits last year.

"Everyone is trying to do their part, but these big corporations haven't really been a part of that," Bradley says. "The fact that only in one state, Oklahoma, did any gas or oil producers share resources with their hard-pressed consumers is evidence that the oil and gas industry in general feels it is not a part of the American community. Shame on the oil and gas producers for their cold indifference."

Thank goodness for all the little people.


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