Loss Of Unemployment Benefits Just The Start Of A Fraying of The Safety Net

A partisan standoff on Capitol Hill means that unemployment benefit checks will run out by the end of the month for 2 million out-of-work Americans.

But if being deprived of such supplemental income isn’t enough of a fright, the nation’s jobless and others struggling with the economic downturn face the potential loss of further federal assistance programs, according to lawmakers and others in Washington.

While Republicans continue to block final votes on an extension of unemployment insurance that began to run dry this week, lawmakers also could cut back on programs that provide home-heating and rental assistance to millions of low-income Americans.

Some 42 Democratic and Republican senators are urging their colleagues to extend funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at fiscal year 2010 levels. Full LIHEAP funding was included in October’s Continuing Resolution, which funds government agencies at 2010 levels until an appropriations bill can be passed for 2011.

However, the Department of Health and Human Services provided grants to states based on the lower numbers that members of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved for FY2011, meaning that Minnesota and other cold-winter states could face significant shortfalls in fiscal year 2011.

Unless Congress maintains last year’s funding levels, the LIHEAP grant amount for Minnesota alone would be cut by 40 percent from fiscal year 2010.

“While our economy is showing signs of recovery, millions of Americans are still out of work and struggling to make ends meet,” says Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, and one of those who signed the LIHEAP letter. “With temperatures falling and heating costs soaring, the LIHEAP program is a last resort for Minnesotans who otherwise can’t afford to heat their homes. It’s vitally important that Congress make these funds available.”

The LIHEAP letter was addressed to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), ranking Republican on Appropriations, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

Those who signed the letter note that the U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that U.S. poverty has shot up to record levels, with 43.6 million Americans counted among the poor.

Interestingly, the letter pushing for LIHEAP benefits is signed by several Republicans who are supporting the filibuster of the unemployment insurance extension.

Meanwhile, analysts at the independent Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report on several legislative proposals to reduce overall funding for nondefense discretionary programs in the final appropriations bills for fiscal year 2011 which threaten cuts in voucher funding that could cause tens of thousands of low-income families to lose rental assistance.

The threat of homelessness is real, the analysts say.

“The full renewal of housing vouchers in 2011 is critical to preventing homelessness and other hardships, particularly at a time of high unemployment and weak wage growth,” they say. “More than 2 million low-income families — nearly all of which include people who are children or elderly or who have disabilities — use vouchers to rent modest housing in the private market. Monthly housing costs for these families would typically double or triple if their vouchers were terminated, placing many at risk of losing their homes. Moreover, only a fraction of eligible low-income families currently receive assistance due to funding limitations — and the need for assistance is rising sharply.

“Since 2007, when the economy began to weaken, the number of poor families struggling to pay severely unaffordable rental housing costs has increased by 800,000, or 17 percent, while the number of homeless children living in temporary shelters has increased by 12 percent, to 325,000, in 2009. Two to three times as many were homeless in 2009 if one also includes children living in temporary hotels or motels, doubled up with other families, or on the street.”

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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