…Just in time for the start of winter, Congress and the White House reduced LIHEAP funding by 25 percent. The federal government doled out $4.7 billion for heating assistance in fiscal 2011; the 2012 allotment is $3.5 billion. The cut happened in December as lawmakers scrambled to fund the government before they left town. The result will be less heat for fewer people.

Nearly 9 million households received assistance in 2011, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, a Washington group that advocates for household energy subsidy programs. The average benefit was $417 per year. Ninety percent of households that received assistance last year had at least one “vulnerable” member, which NEADA describes as a person who is older than 60, younger than 18 or disabled. Households are eligible for the program if their income is at or below 150 percent of the poverty level or 60 percent of their state’s median income.

NEADA director Mark Wolfe said the smaller appropriation would mean assistance for roughly 1 million fewer households. Mostly, the reduction would mean less aid for many of the homes that do get help.

"We’ll really see the problems next month," Wolfe said. "We’ve never gone into the winter before with heating oils this high."

A gallon of heating oil currently goes for $3.83, up more than 50 cents from this time last year and the highest price since 1990, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.