Applications for federal help with home heating bills are up more than 8 percent from last year, Minnesota officials say. But the amount of money available to help low-income families stay warm is uncertain.
So far this heating season, more than 123,000 Minnesota households have applied for heating assistance. But administrators for some assistance programs say they are already turning people away.
Bemidji resident Jake Lindom, who lost his job as a press operator last April when the local newspaper shut down its printing press, got his application in early.
"I felt I needed to do this just to stay afloat, so, it's there for the people that need it, and I think it is a good program to bridge the gap," Lindom said.
Lindom's wife graduated from a registered nursing program last spring, but she's been unable to find a full-time job. His unemployment benefits will run out soon, and it's unclear whether Congress will extend unemployment to get him through the winter. Lindom said heating assistance could be critical to his household budget.
"I would say that if I did run out of unemployment, [heating assistance] could make or break as far as buying groceries or paying a light bill, or putting gas in, or whatever ... So I'm just waiting, hoping to get something," he said.
Lindom easily meets the qualifying income guideline, which for a family of four is roughly $43,000 or less. But there's no guarantee Lindom's family will get help.
That's because energy assistance dollars are dependant on decisions made by Congress. Minnesota received $65 million dollars as a first installment of program funds. But Congress has so far not voted to allocate more dollars to the program.
For the past few years, Congress approved record amounts of funding because of the recession. But this year, the average household grant amount is projected to be about $500, about 21 percent less than last year.
Money for the program in Beltrami and Cass counties is running dry, said Patty Hargreaves, who coordinates heating assistance for both counties.
"We do not have enough funding to serve all of the households that have applied," she said "People are coming in who could be facing emergencies. We're having to tell them that we don't have funding to help them out until those other funds get released."
State commerce officials say they expect a heating assistance budget will eventually be approved by Congress, but they just don't know when or for how much.
Department spokesperson Nicole Garrison-Sprenger said funding questions this time of year aren't unusual. She said the good news for consumers is that fuel prices that were so volatile just a few years ago appear to be more stable now.
"At this point, the forecast is that heating costs will be about the same as they were last year, so that should help," Garrison-Sprenger said.
What's less predictable about social safety net programs like heating assistance these days is the political environment. The new Republican majority in the U.S. House likely means the body will take a more conservative view of such programs.
That and a soft economy could mean changes in low-income programs, said Kay Walsborn, chair of the political science department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.
"I think putting those two things together is likely to diminish the prospects of any program that costs money," Walsborn said. "It could be that at the federal level, the response to this need will just be, 'we don't have the money.'"
Last year, heating assistance funding was about double what it was in 2007. That's mostly because of the recession. As the economy improves and more people head back to work, the demand for help is likely to decline.