Leader Blues

Thursday, January 31, 2008

EDITORIAL>> Program helps wrong people

Gov. Beebe added his voice to the plea for a little compassion from Washington in this dreary winter of discontent, but there is precious little hope that it will make any difference. The economic stimulus package on which Congress and the White House apparently are collaborating will provide a little relief to the needy in the late spring, but much, much too late to help.

Home heating bills last year and this year have risen sharply, making it impossible for tens of thousands of people to make timely payments for utilities and meet other basic needs. It is the season of cutoff notices.

The government has had a plan to help — the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) — but it has been chary with money and nearly all of that goes north, where it is colder but where there are far fewer poor people.

The complicated formula for allocating the small appropriation each year favors the northern climes, although the money is also supposed to help people cool their homes in the extremes of Southern summers. Congress and President Bush agreed on a slightly bigger appropriation this year but Arkansas’ tiny allotment will be exhausted before 35 percent of the people who desperately need the help paying their heating bills get any assistance. The money is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The president of Entergy Arkansas, Arkansas’ largest electricity provider, estimates that about a fifth of utility customers live at or below the federal poverty line, and for most of them a steep gas or electric bill in the winter means enduring cold or cutting back on other necessities like food and medicine.

Beebe called on Congress to put another $800 million into LIHEAP immediately. It could be tacked onto the economic stimulus package, as a few like Sen. Hillary Clinton urged, but President Bush and congressional Republicans object. They somehow have always been resistant to LIHEAP.

The stimulus checks will reach households in late April at the earliest and probably May and June, when the Internal Revenue Service finds time in the tax season to process them. If the economy needs an instant shot in the arm — last month would have been the propitious time, economists believe — there is no quicker way than heating assistance for the poor. Every dollar would be pumped into the retail economy instantly, which is the definition of stimulus.