Poor and elderly Pennsylvanians who receive funding or assistance from local agencies and charities may face cuts, should Congress fail to act and prevent the looming "fiscal cliff" - the large-scale spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect Jan. 1.
Some local assistance group directors said they may not be able to continue providing people the help they need, if there is no resolution.
"The impact of [the fiscal cliff] would be immediate," said Blair Senior Services President Steve Williamson.
He said programs assist more than 10,000 people agencywide, noting there could be cuts to the number of home-delivered meals and senior-center programs if funding were slashed for programs under the Older Americans Act.
"We are in the fortunate position that we can bridge a temporary gap [with funds], but it's exactly that," he said. He estimated that the organization could last perhaps a few weeks or a month before running into financial trouble.
Jean Johnstone, executive director for the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, said funding cuts would place an extreme burden on safety net agencies and charity groups.
"Our biggest thing we help families with ... is fuel oil in the winter time," she said. "Central Pennsylvania winters are cold."
Johnstone said the group spends $20,000 to $30,000 per month in each of the charity's three offices, assisting families across eight counties by providing fuel oil and helping people pay their water and electricity bills.
She said rising utility costs, coupled with possible funding cuts from the federal, state or local government, spell problems for the charity, despite the fact that the group receives a swell of donations around Christmastime.
Pennsylvanians who receive assistance from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, have little reason to fear, according to Department of Welfare officials.
LIHEAP is a program that provides help for income-eligible residents either in the form of cash grants sent directly to a utility company to offset bill costs, or crisis grants for those in immediate danger of being without heat.
Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Donna Morgan said this year, cash grants will range from $100 to $1,000; crisis grants will range from $25 to $400.
Morgan said last year's mild winter meant application numbers were down and there was enough money to cover program recipients. She said the department expects to receive roughly the same amount this year.
As of Dec. 15, Morgan said the department had approved 162,569 Pennsylvania applicants for the cash assistance program, up slightly from the 161,571 received as of the same date last year. Morgan noted that Blair County has fewer applications this year - 2,226 approved so far, compared to 3,545 last year. There have also been fewer crisis grant applications.
She said cash grants plus crisis money puts the grand total at $203 million for the state so far, with the department expecting to receive another $6 million by next year, should the fiscal cliff crisis be solved.
"We're planning and preparing [in the event of the fiscal cliff]," she said, but said department officials are anticipating that the money will come through. Even if it doesn't, current funds likely will be enough to fully fund LIHEAP applicants this year, she added.
The Public Utility Commission won't allow companies to shut off heat or electricity for LIHEAP-eligible customers between Dec. 1 and March 31.
The problem, according to Johnstone, is that an especially harsh winter may extend beyond the shut-off moratorium.
"Two weeks ago, people were already using up their LIHEAP money," which the charity usually doesn't see until mid-January, she said.
According to Johnstone, last year the charity provided financial assistance to 8,534 people, representing 4,812 households, but they also had to turn away the same number of households.
"The biggest concern we have is that ... [even the people we can help] won't make it through the season," she said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is among politicians who are trying to keep programs - and especially LIHEAP - fully funded for the future. In a Dec. 12 letter to President Barack Obama, Casey urged the administration to prioritize LIHEAP for fiscal year 2014.
"I am concerned that the number of eligible households continues to far exceed those receiving assistance and additional cuts will leave Pennsylvanians out in the cold," he wrote.
Casey said that nationwide funding for LIHEAP has declined 32 percent in recent years and that many residents are in danger of not receiving the help for which they are eligible. He said the 2014 budget should restore funding to a $4.7 billion level, an increase from last year's $3.47 billion.