WHITE RIVER, S.D. – Eva Iyotte was waiting on propane ordered under a federal energy assistance program President Donald Trump has targeted for elimination when she lost power at her home on frozen tribal land in South Dakota.
As the January conditions sent temperatures plummeting inside the house, the 63-year-old, her daughter and two grandsons took blankets to their car, where they waited with the heater running until the electricity was restored.
Iyotte said there would be many more cold days like that if the program ends. It’s unclear whether Congress, which passes the federal budget, will agree to the change the Trump administration is seeking.
“We might be poor, but we’re like other people. We want to survive,” said Iyotte, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. “If that program is cut, I don’t know who’s going to help us out.”
Tribal officials in states with harsh winters fear what would happen without the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP. Ending it, as Trump’s budget blueprint would do, could disproportionately affect Native Americans, backers of the program say.
Iyotte said propane is the primary heating source for her home. As she waited for it to arrive in January, she kept a pot of water boiling on the electric stove for warmth — until the power went out.
“People will die” without LIHEAP, said Eileen Shot, who administers it for the Rosebud Sioux, which has gotten about $850,000 this fiscal year. Trump’s budget blueprint calls it a “lower-impact program.”
It’s not Trump’s only move to spur concern among tribes. His strong support for oil pipelines including Dakota Access and Keystone XL put him in direct opposition to American Indians who have long resisted both projects.
LIHEAP helps low-income households meet their heating and cooling needs. Under federal income guidelines, American Indians qualify for the program at slightly higher rates than Latino and black households, and far higher than whites, according to a February report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think-tank that supports officials and experts who serve minority communities.
Besides tribal members’ higher poverty rates, some reservations are in rural areas with extreme weather, and many are home to large populations of young and elderly members, making the help even more critical, said Clara Pratte, director for the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, which works to ensure the LIHEAP program is fully funded.
The federal government each year directly funds LIHEAP to roughly 150 tribal governments and organizations. Those groups provided about 43,000 Native American households with heating assistance during the 12-month period that ended in September 2016, according to preliminary data.
Tribes have gotten $33.3 million since October, part of a larger $3 billion handed out to date nationwide for the current budget year. Tribes that don’t apply directly to the Administration for Children and Families to administer LIHEAP are typically served through the corresponding state program.
Trump has also proposed eliminating all funding this fiscal year that hasn’t already been apportioned.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said LIHEAP is an inefficient program that would be better run and funded by states. He said advocates for every federal program that assists low-income people unrealistically treat it as the “only thing standing between the poor and some dark future.”
“I like to say it’s kind of like looking at a jigsaw puzzle where you only look at one piece at a time,” he said.
States were expecting the program to be funded at least $3.3 billion for the 12-month period that begins this October, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. He said it’s unlikely that states would make up all that money if the federal program ends.
“There are a number of ways to help people afford energy, but you can’t take $3.3 billion away from this program without consequences,” Wolfe said. “The amount of money is so significant it cannot be made up by supplemental state funding or charitable resources.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said in a statement that Trump’s budget proposal is “only the president’s recommendation.” During the appropriations process, the Senate will look at the merits of each program, said spokeswoman Natalie Krings, adding that LIHEAP has been funded in the past and will likely continue to be funded in the future.
Paulette Ecoffey, 40, said that she sees the program helping her and many other people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The Oglala Sioux member late last year got two cords of wood through the program for her wood stove, which helped heat her trailer for about a month.
“Wood’s like gold in my house,” said Ecoffey, whose furnace gave out about 2 1/2 years ago. “That’s how we keep warm.”
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