[Photo by Jon Pekelnicky/Flickr]

Like many other programs for the poor, the federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has been steadily whittled down over the last few years. And that means many Chicagoans could be frozen out of getting much needed help with their heating bills during a winter that’s seeing record-breaking low temperatures.

Between 2010 and 2013, LIHEAP funding fell 17 percent, leaving 1.5 million households without necessary financial assistance to pay their energy bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association, the primary policy organization for LIHEAP directors. 

But dangerous subzero temperatures, like those that placed much of Chicago on lockdown Monday, make the already threadbare program even more vital, says Mark Wolfe, the association’s executive director .

“What will start to happen is families that could afford their energy bills last year will [turn the heat up and] have a higher bill, and more people will apply for [LIHEAP] help,” Wolfe says.  That will only compound a situation that can’t keep up with demands for energy assistance, he adds.

In Illinois, 350,000 households that had incomes 150 percent below the poverty line received heating assistance in 2012, according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for more LIHEAP funding. The energy assistance program targets some of the most vulnerable–low-income families with children under 5 and individuals who are elderly or disabled.

The state’s portion of LIHEAP funding also has declined in recent years, falling from $268 million in 2009 to $176 million in 2013, according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. 

Cook County saw a similar fall in funding, from $122 million in 2011 to $85 million in 2012. The county requested only $68 million in 2013.

Meanwhile, Cook County’s poverty rate between 2008 and 2012 averaged 16.4 percent, according to census figures.

Further compounding difficulties for low-income families struggling to pay their heating bills is that natural gas in Chicago simply costs more this winter. In June, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved a rate hike for Peoples Gas that Crain’s Chicago Business estimated would add about $4.40 a month to the average Chicagoan’s winter bill. Last winter, the monthly average heating cost was $142.

Wolfe notes that there is a battle in Washington for additional LIHEAP funding. Recently, 39 senators, including Sen. Dick Durbin (IL-D), signed an open letter to President Barack Obama asking for $4.7 billion in appropriations for LIHEAP for Fiscal Year 2015.

Unfortunately, in the current political environment in Congress, it’s extremely difficult to get additional funding for programs that help low-income folks, Wolfe says. And with more cuts to the program proposed in the president’s FY2014 budget, “we could be looking at an emergency this year.”

is a blogger/reporter at The Chicago Reporter.