More than one out of every four residents throughout Erie County relies on federal assistance to pay their winter heating bills.
That’s why many fear President Trump’s plan to eliminate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program - better known as HEAP - will leave hundreds of thousands of local residents in the cold.
“It’s heartless,” said County Executive Mark Poloncarz. “I never thought I’d see a president do that. I’m shocked. “
So are New York’s congressmen and senators who all say they oppose the cut to a program that serves 92,000 families countywide.
“I absolutely support HEAP and recognize the important role it plays for many people in Western New York,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, a longtime Trump ally. “I have fought for increased funding in the past and look forward to working with the Appropriations Committee to ensure HEAP is properly funded.”
Unlike some other public assistance programs, designed to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor, the HEAP program assists a broader range of people. More than a quarter of those who receive HEAP assistance in Erie County receive no other Social Services benefits, according to the county.
A family of four with an annual income up to $53,076 a year is eligible for heating assistance.
If HEAP is eliminated, those living at or near the poverty level still would be entitled to heating assistance, said Karen Rybicki, assistant deputy commissioner of Social Services.
But the county wouldn’t have this pot of federal money to draw from.
“Even if the HEAP program was to go away, the Department of Social Services still has an obligation to help folks who are in an emergency need,” she said.
Aneesha Richardson-Rogers is one of those working people now getting the assistance. A married mother with two children and one stepdaughter, Richardson-Rogers has worked for 10 years in collections and has been hired full time by GEICO. She also just accepted a part-time job as a teller with Key Bank, she said.
The one-time HEAP benefit of $350 per season gives Richardson-Rogers the ability to stay current on all her other bills. She once fell a month behind on her rent when her husband lost work, she said, but HEAP enabled her to catch up. She receives no other Social Services assistance and credited her children, who range in age from 8 to 15, for doing their part to help around the house.
But even with her retired parents helping with child care, covering all her family’s costs over the winter is difficult, she said.
“With the bills me and my husband have – school, after-school programs, car, rent – it’s been a hard time,” said Richardson-Rogers, 36.
Things are looking up for the family these days, she said. With her new jobs, HEAP assistance and the money she plans to save, she said, she hopes to purchase a house within the next year. She also completed her associate degree in business management and intends to work toward a four-year degree online.
In the meantime, she said, it’s nice to know she doesn’t have to choose between heating her home and having the money to cover more essential needs like food.
“It’s a blessing for someone to help you,” she said.
Local politicians and legislators in both city and rural districts routinely promote HEAP benefits and outreach events that make it easier for county residents to apply for HEAP within their own communities. The fact that the program is entirely federally funded also relieves local legislators who don’t bear the burden of a local cost share.
County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, said she worked with Social Services to hold six outreach programs in her district since the start of the season, and 125 families showed up for the first one. That’s more families than Social Services’ downtown office sees in a day, she said.
“It is not a luxury in our community,” Grant said. “It’s a program that I don’t see how people will survive without it.”
Though the window for basic HEAP assistance has just closed, emergency assistance is still available through the end of the month.
Trump’s proposal to eliminate these benefits are likely to receive a stiff challenge in Congress, with so many constituents relying on both basic HEAP assistance and emergency HEAP assistance, which eligible residents may apply for if they receive a utility shut-off notice.
“The President’s proposal to cut this vital lifeline is cruel and completely unnecessary,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer in a statement, “and I will work with my colleagues to ferociously oppose it and beat it back.”
HEAP is not the only cut Trump proposes that faces stiff opposition.
Collins, one of Trump’s earliest allies, has not only voiced support for the HEAP program, but for other programs on the chopping block, including Meals on Wheels, one of the many services that would die with the elimination of the federal community block grant program, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which would be lost under cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Regarding his support for HEAP, however, Collins said that while he will fight to retain the program, he favors making changes to the HEAP application process to prevent “blatant abuse.”
He referred to a 2010 federal report indicating application weaknesses that left states open to fraud, particularly if an individual already was receiving other Social Services benefits.
“This is unacceptable and puts the entire program at risk,” he said.