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Gibson writes: "If President Obama had prioritized adequately funding the low-income heating assistance program (LIHEAP) as much as he did funding military interventions overseas, a retired veteran might still be alive today."

Vietnam veteran John Skelley, who died of hypothermia after his utility company shut off heat to his Michigan apartment over an unpaid bill. (photo: Skelley family photo)
Vietnam veteran John Skelley, who died of hypothermia after his utility company shut off heat to his Michigan apartment over an unpaid bill. (photo: Skelley family photo)

How President Obama's Coldness Toward Heating Assistance Ended Up Killing a Vietnam Vet in Michigan

By Carl Gibson, Reader Supported News

21 February 15


f President Obama had prioritized adequately funding the low-income heating assistance program (LIHEAP) as much as he did funding military interventions overseas, a retired veteran might still be alive today.

After the polar vortexes of 2014, which brought wind chills down to 65 below zero in Wisconsin, where I lived at the time, it was hard to imagine that any winter could be worse. But the first months of 2015 have been especially brutal for people all over America. My family in Kentucky is currently dealing with over a foot of snow on the ground and 25 below zero wind chills. Friends of mine in the Boston area are in the middle of the second-snowiest season on record, with several weeks of winter still to come. Even in Jackson, Mississippi, where I used to live, wind chills are down to just 14 degrees. But three weeks ago, one veteran in Michigan didn’t survive the cold after his heat was cut off in the dead of winter due to an outstanding gas bill for his apartment.

John Skelley, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran with throat cancer, was found dead of hypothermia on February 1. His utility company, Consumers Energy, turned off the heat in his Hazel Park, Michigan, apartment over an unpaid $750 bill dating back to March 2012. The amount in question wasn’t even owed by Skelley, but by former tenant Joseph Mixen. But regardless of who owed the $750, LIHEAP, a federal program that helps low-income residents keep their heat on, could have made the difference were it not for President Obama insisting on deep cuts to the program in almost all of his yearly budget recommendations.

“When these tragedies do happen, energy is a matter of life and death,” said Monica Martinez of the Coalition to Keep Michigan Warm, which advocates for a $4.7 billion LIHEAP budget. “LIHEAP is supposed to be fully funded at 5.1 billion, but that’s really never happened.”

The LIHEAP program had a budget of $5.1 billion before Obama recommended it be reduced to $2.57 billion in his White House budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 – a 50 percent cut. Rick Snyder, Michigan’s Republican governor, pleaded to the Obama administration and Congress to properly fund LIHEAP, warning that the president’s cuts would affect 600,000 households in Michigan, where winters can be bitterly cold.

Congress ultimately allotted $3.47 billion for LIHEAP that year, which was almost $1 billion more than President Obama recommended, but still a $1.47 billion cut for a program meant for impoverished people at a time when poverty was still at alarming levels following the economic crash of 2008. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez once again donated 100 gallons of heating oil for each of the 400,000 low-income American households and 250 homeless shelters in need of greater assistance to heat their homes for the sixth year in a row.

The following year, when the notorious budget sequester kicked in, President Obama recommended $3 billion for LIHEAP, a 30 percent cut to peak LIHEAP funding as opposed to the 50 percent cut the year before. Congress would ultimately provide $500 million more for the program than the president recommended. However, the sequester needlessly cut $180 million from the program, meaning 400,000 low-income households (assuming the average LIHEAP household gets an annual grant of $450) would now have to pay for heating their home in the winter out of pocket.

The sequester was a needless cut to an already underfunded program; according to a 2012 letter from 137 U.S. House representatives to the appropriations committee, even though 8.9 million households got LIHEAP grants, that only amounted to 20 percent of households eligible for heating assistance actually getting it. And according to the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association, 90 percent of LIHEAP households have one family member who is “vulnerable,” which term includes the elderly, the disabled, and children.

President Obama made the same $3 billion recommendation for fiscal year 2014, though Congress appropriated an additional $452 million to states in addition to what Obama was willing to allocate. In last year’s White House budget request, Obama recommended just $2.8 billion for low-income heating assistance, going back to a near-50 percent cut in peak LIHEAP funding. This prompted a condemnation from the program’s administrators, who pointed out that the mayors of 19 cities were calling on the president to increase the LIHEAP budget to $4.7 billion. But Obama’s 2016 budget recommendation takes the cake in terms of cold indifference to the heating needs of struggling American families.

While Obama has requested $3.39 billion for LIHEAP this year (still roughly a 30 percent cut from peak funding in 2008) he’s requested a $534.3 billion base Pentagon budget, which is larger than even Reagan’s most ambitious base Pentagon budget requests at the height of the Cold War. And that base budget request doesn’t include the approximately $50 billion for wars overseas, or the hundreds of billions of dollars for advanced weapons systems like aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and stealth fighter jets like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which won't be able to even fire its own gun for at least four more years. In 2016, the Pentagon plans to buy 44 more of these faulty F-35 jets at a cost of $5.6 billion. This means that just by cutting out new F-35 purchases, the LIHEAP program could have even more funding than the program had at its peak.

President Obama has been gaining popularity for making populist suggestions like raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for middle class tax breaks, for supporting a higher minimum wage, and for calling attention to the imminent threat of climate change. But a president who claims to be concerned with the working poor and climate change shouldn’t be consistently cutting a program that provides much-needed help for the working poor to stay warm during harsher winters – a direct consequence of climate change. Making sure veterans like John Skelley don’t needlessly die of hypothermia over an unpaid $760 gas bill should be at the top of the president’s priorities.

Calls to White House communications staff and Congressman John Conyers’s office were not returned.

Carl Gibson, 27, is regular featured columnist and editor for Reader Supported News, @RSN_Godot. In addition Carl co-founded US Uncut, a direct action group that mobilized thousands against corporate tax dodging and budget cuts in the months leading up to Occupy Wall Street. Carl and other US Uncut activists are featured in the award-winning, Sundance-selected documentary We're Not Broke, which is available on Netflix. He is also author of the book, How to Oust a Congressman, about his experience organizing the ouster of a member of Congress from New Hampshire in the 2012 elections. Carl has been profiled in Fox Business, Marketwatch, and Carl has been a guest on MSNBC and many other political discussion forums.

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