Video: More Americans seek heating assistance

By Anne Thompson Chief environmental correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/8/2005 8:22:23 PM ET 2005-12-09T01:22:23

In Commerce Township, Mich. Thursday, the thermometer read 22 degrees — but it felt like a bone-chilling 12 — sending a different kind of shiver through Janis Bedard, whose gas bill for her three-bedroom house has doubled.

“I don't know how I'm going to pay the winter bills,” she says.

Her husband makes $40-50,000 a year at Ford, but with three kids, two cars and a mortgage, their budget is already stretched thin.

“The big thing we're doing,” Bedard says, “is kind of cutting back on the Christmas spending to accommodate for the winter months. We just can't spend it.”

An increasing number of middle-class families are turning to low-income heating assistance programs for help. In most states, a family of four must make less than $29,025 to qualify for aid. But if Congress gives the program more than the $2.2 billion of years past, officials say more people could be helped.

“If they provide additional funding,” says Mark Wolfe with the National Energy Assistance Directors Association,“then I think many states will raise the eligibility ceiling, because we're very concerned about these families.”

Last winter, 5 million U.S. households applied for assistance. This winter, program administrators fear the number could top 6 million for the first time, a 20 percent increase.

Thursday, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the administration supports giving the program an extra billion dollars, because with a third of the natural gas and oil production in the hurricane-battered Gulf down, there is no relief in sight.

“It's still shut in due to the damage that was done,” Bodman said, “and that is not going to be back on line, my guess is, until summertime.”

So, Janis Bedard has turned down the heat, changed the furnace filter and is thinking about taping her windows — seeking cold comfort in a winter of high prices.

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