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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on February 4th, 2012
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)



THIS LAND – that means the USA.

In Fuel Oil Country, Cold That Cuts to the Heart.

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

A man’s plea to an oil dealer for help heating his home in Dixfield, Me., led to some agonizing. More Photos »

By 
Published THE NEW YORK TIMES ONLINE: February 3, 2012
Struggling for Warmth
Follow@NYTNational for breaking news and headlines.

With the darkening approach of another ice-hard Saturday night in western Maine, the man on the telephone was pleading for help, again. His tank was nearly dry, and he and his disabled wife needed precious heating oil to keep warm. Could Ike help out? Again?

Ike Libby, the co-owner of a small oil company called Hometown Energy, ached for his customer, Robert Hartford. He knew what winter in Maine meant, especially for a retired couple living in a wood-frame house built in the 19th century. But he also knew that the Hartfords already owed him more than $700 for two earlier deliveries.

The oil man said he was very sorry. The customer said he understood. And each was left to grapple with a matter so mundane in Maine, and so vital: the need for heat. For the rest of the weekend, Mr. Libby agonized over his decision, while Mr. Hartford warmed his house with the heat from his electric stove’s four burners.

“You get off the phone thinking, ‘Are these people going to be found frozen?’ ” Mr. Libby said. No wonder, he said, that he is prescribed medication for stress and “happy pills” for equilibrium.

Two days later, Mr. Libby told his two office workers about his decision. Diane Carlton works the front desk while her daughter-in-law, Janis, handles accounts. But they share the job of worrying about Ike, whose heart, they say, is too big for his bantam size and, maybe, this business.

The Hartford case “ate him,” Janice Carlton recalled. “It just ate him.”

Mr. Libby drove off to make deliveries in his oil truck, a rolling receptacle of crumpled coffee cups and cigarette packs. Diane Carlton, the office’s mother hen, went home early. This meant that Janis Carlton was alone when their customer, Mr. Hartford, stepped in from the cold. He had something in his hand: the title to his 16-year-old Lincoln Town Car.

Would Hometown Energy take the title as collateral for some heating oil? Please?

Maine is in the midst of its Republican presidential caucus, the state’s wintry moment in the battle for the country’s future. But at this time of year, almost nothing matters here as much as basic heat.

While federal officials try to wean the country from messy and expensive heating oil, Maine remains addicted. The housing stock is old, most communities are rural, and many residents cannot afford to switch to a cleaner heat source. So the tankers pull into, say, the Portland port, the trucks load up, and the likes of Ike Libby sidle up to house after house to fill oil tanks.

This winter has been especially austere. As part of the drive to cut spending, the Obama administration and Congress have trimmed the energy-assistance program that helps the poor — 65,000 households in Maine alone — to pay their heating bills. Eligibility is harder now, and the average amount given here is $483, down from $804 last year, all at a time when the price of oil has risen more than 40 cents in a year, to $3.71 a gallon.

As a result, Community Concepts, a community-action program serving western Maine, receives dozens of calls a day from people seeking warmth. But Dana Stevens, its director of energy and housing, says that he has distributed so much of the money reserved for emergencies that he fears running out. This means that sometimes the agency’s hot line purposely goes unanswered.

So Mainers try to make do. They warm up in idling cars, then dash inside and dive under the covers. They pour a few gallons of kerosene into their oil tank and hope it lasts. And they count on others. Maybe their pastor. Maybe the delivery man. Maybe, even, a total stranger.

Hometown Energy has five trucks and seven employees, and is run out of an old house next to the Ellis variety store and diner. Oil perfumes the place, thanks to the petroleum-stained truckers and mechanics clomping through. Janis Carlton, 35, tracks accounts in the back, while Diane Carlton, 64, works in the front, where, every now and then, she finds herself comforting walk-ins who fear the cold so much that they cry.

Their boss, Mr. Libby, 53, has rough hands and oil-stained dungarees. He has been delivering oil for most of his adult life — throwing the heavy hose over his shoulder, shoving the silver nozzle into the tank and listening for the whistle that blows when oil replaces air.

Eight years ago, he and another Dixfield local, Gene Ellis, who owns that variety store next door, created Hometown Energy, a company whose logo features a painting of a church-and-hillside scene from just down the road. They thought that with Ike’s oil sense and Gene’s business sense, they’d make money. But Mr. Libby says now that he’d sell the company in a heartbeat.

“You know what my dream is?” Mr. Libby asked. “To be a greeter at Walmart.”

This is because he sells heat — not lumber, or paper, or pastries — and around here, more than a few come too close to not having enough. Sure, some abuse the heating-assistance program, he says, but many others live in dire need, including people he has known all his life.

So Mr. Libby does what he can. Unlike many oil companies, he makes small deliveries and waves off most service fees. He sets up elaborate payment plans, hoping that obligations don’t melt away with the spring thaw. He accepts postdated checks. And he takes his medication.

When the customer named Robert Hartford called on the after-hours line that Saturday afternoon, asking for another delivery, Mr. Libby struggled to do what was right. He cannot bear the thought of people wanting for warmth, but his tendency to cut people a break is one reason Hometown Energy isn’t making much money, as his understanding partner keeps gently pointing out.

“I do have a heart,” Mr. Libby said. But he was already “on the hook” for the two earlier deliveries he had made to the couple’s home. What’s more, he didn’t know even know the Hartfords.

Robert and Wilma Hartford settled into the porous old house, just outside of Dixfield, a few months ago, in what was the latest of many moves in their 37-year marriage. Mr. Hartford was once a stonemason who traveled from the Pacific Northwest to New England, plying his trade.

Those wandering days are gone. Mr. Hartford, 68, has a bad shoulder, Mrs. Hartford, 71, needs a wheelchair, and the two survive on $1,200 a month (“Poverty,” Mrs. Hartford says). So far this year they have received $360 in heating assistance, he said, about a quarter of last year’s allocation.

Mr. Hartford said he used what extra money they had to repair broken pipes, install a cellar door, and seal various cracks with Styrofoam spray that he bought at Walmart. That wasn’t enough to block the cold, of course, and the two oil deliveries carried them only into early January.

There was no oil to burn, so the cold took up residence, beside the dog and the four cats, under the velvet painting of Jesus. The couple had no choice but to run up their electric bill. They turned on the Whirlpool stove’s burners and circulated the heat with a small fan. They ran the dryer’s hose back into the basement to keep pipes from freezing, even when there were no clothes to dry.

And, just about every day, Mr. Hartford drove to a gas station and filled up a five-gallon plastic container with $20 of kerosene. “It was the only way we had,” he said. Finally, seeing no other option, Mr. Hartford made the hard telephone call to Hometown Energy. Panic lurked behind his every word, and every word wounded the oil man on the other end.

“I had a hard time saying no,” Mr. Libby said. “But I had to say no.”

When Mr. Hartford heard that no, he also heard regret. “You could tell in his voice,” he said.

Two days later, Mr. Hartford drove up to Hometown Energy’s small office in his weathered gray Lincoln, walked inside, and made his desperate offer: The title to his car for some oil.

His offer stunned Janis Carlton, the only employee present. But she remembered that someone had offered, quietly, to donate 50 gallons of heating oil if an emergency case walked through the door. She called that person and explained the situation.

Her mother-in-law and office mate, Diane Carlton, answered without hesitation. Deliver the oil and I’ll pay for it, she said, which is one of the ways that Mainers make do in winter.

================================


OP-ED COLUMNIST

Romney, the Rich and the Rest

By CHARLES M. BLOW
Published – The New York Times online: February 3, 2012.

After all, Mitt Romney is the same multimillionaire who joked that he was “unemployed” while he was “earning” more in one day than most Americans earn in a year and paying a lower rate on those earnings than most Americans do.

This is the same man who bragged last month that he liked to fire people at a time when nearly 13 million people are out of work and who accepted the endorsement this week of Donald Trump, who has made “You’re Fired!” his television catchphrase.

This is the same man who in November claimed that federal employees are making “a lot more money than we are.” What?! We? What we? Please direct me to the federal employees with the $20 million paychecks. In fact, The Washington Post pointed out in November that federal employees on average “are underpaid by 26.3 percent when compared with similar nonfederal jobs, a ‘pay gap’ that increased by about 2 percentage points over the last year while federal salary rates were frozen.”

And who could forget his remark that “corporations are people.” Classic.

But this week when Romney said that he wasn’t concerned about the very poor in this country, he jumped in the pickle barrel and went over the waterfall.

First, his statement:

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America — the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

Romney went on to say that his campaign was focused on “middle-income Americans” and that “we have a very ample safety net” for the poor.

He later tried to clarify, saying that his comments needed context. Then he said that the comments were a “misstatement” and that he had “misspoke.” Yeah, right.

Where to begin?

First, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last month pointed out that Romney’s budget proposals would take a chainsaw to that safety net. The report points out that cuts proposed by Romney would be even more draconian than a plan from Representative Paul Ryan: “Governor Romney’s budget proposals would require far deeper cuts in nondefense programs than the House-passed budget resolution authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan: $94 billion to $219 billion deeper in 2016 and $303 billion to $819 billion deeper in 2021.”

What does this mean for specific programs? Let’s take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, since “food stamps” have been such a talking point in the Republican debates. The report says the Romney plan “would throw 10 million low-income people off the benefit rolls, cut benefits by thousands of dollars a year, or some combination of the two.  These cuts would primarily affect very-low-income families with children, seniors and people with disabilities.”

Does that sound like a man trying to “fix” our social safety nets? Absolutely not. Romney is so far up the beanstalk that he can no longer see the ground.

Then let’s take the fact that a report last month by the Tax Policy Center found that his tax plan would increase after-tax income for millionaires by 14.5 percent while increasing the after-tax income of those making less than $20,000 by less than 1 percent and of those making between $30,000 and $40,000 by less than 3 percent.

For a man who’s not worried about the rich, he sure seems to want them to rake in more cash.

This has nothing to do with context. This has everything to do with a caviar candidate’s inability to relate to a chicken-soup citizenry.

Then there is the “ample safety net” nonsense. No one who has ever been on the low end of the income spectrum believes this, not even Republicans. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in October, even most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who make less than $30,000 a year, which accounts for about a quarter of all Republicans, say that the government doesn’t do enough to help the poor. Only a man who has never felt the sting of poverty or seen its ravages would say such a thing.

But perhaps the most pernicious part of his statement was the underestimating of the rich and poor and the elasticized expansion of the term “middle income” or middle class. Romney suggests that 95 percent of Americans are in this group. Not true.

According to the Census Bureau, the official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent.

And that’s the income poor. It doesn’t even count the “asset poor.” A report issued this week by the Corporation for Enterprise Development found that 27 percent of U.S. households live in “asset poverty.” According to the report, “These families do not have the savings or other assets to cover basic expenses (equivalent to what could be purchased with a poverty level income) for three months if a layoff or other emergency leads to loss of income.”

On the other hand, the definition of “rich” is more nebulous. However, according to a December Gallup report, Americans set the rich threshold at $150,000 in annual income. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau 8.4 percent of households had an income of $150,000 are more in 2010.

So at the very least, nearly a fourth of all Americans are either poor or rich.

That would leave about three-fourths somewhere in the middle, but not all middle class. Tricking the poor to believe they’re in it, and allowing the wealthy to hide in it, is one of the great modern political deceptions and how we’ve arrived at our current predicament.

According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last month, nearly a fifth of families making less than $15,000 said that they were middle class and nearly two-fifths of those making more than $100,000 said that they were middle class.

Romney is not only cold and clumsy, he’s disastrously out of touch, and when talking about real people, out of sorts. If only he had a heart, and if only that heart was connected to his brain.

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