LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Last year Carolyn Brackett and her family received $700 to help pay their gas bills from a federal program for low-income families -- enough to heat their home for six weeks during New Hampshire's long, cold winter.
But this year the Brackett family may get nothing as federal cuts to heating assistance to low-income families have jeopardized aid to thousands of households.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has allotted $1.7 billion for the program so far this year, down from $4.5 billion last year and $5 billion the year before.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program provides aid to millions of households across the nation. In 2009, the last year for which figures are available, 7.7 million households in all 50 states benefited from the program.
New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania are the program's largest recipients.
In Raymond, New Hampshire, the Brackett's home has already fallen victim to a chilly two-day power outage this week after a storm left a foot of snow.
"It's going to be tough. We usually only keep the heat at 64 degrees," said Carolyn Brackett, 34, whose two children are in kindergarten and first grade and whose husband works for an oil company.
"The kids run around with footy pajamas and hooded sweatshirts on, and we go through 100 gallons of propane in three weeks," she said.
Additional funds could be allotted to the program as Congress hammers out appropriations for its next spending bill this month, but states are making plans for cutbacks as temperatures drop.
"We're looking at the possibility of adjustments," said Celeste Lovett, who runs the heating aid program for New Hampshire. "We would definitely be short if this was the only funding."
In New Hampshire, 45,252 households received aid last year, a figure that will drop to 25,000 this year without additional funds.
Without new monies, federal heating aid will have fallen 71 percent over the past three years, according to data from Lovett's office.
Families of four that earn less than $3,674 per month -- or about twice the federal poverty limit -- are likely to continue to get some aid, said Louise Bergeron, energy director of Southern New Hampshire Services, a nonprofit organization that helps families enroll in the program.
Others like the Bracketts, who make slightly more than that, may not get assistance as New Hampshire may have to lower the income threshold of those receiving aid, she said.
With the Energy Information Administration predicting heating oil prices will rise 10 percent this year, or $193 more per household, the drop in funding has led to criticism of the Obama administration.
Republican U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine issued a statement calling the move a "mistake," and U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from neighboring New Hampshire, said the funding level "makes no sense given the record price of heating oil and the early arrival of cold, snowy weather."
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Brackett, who said her family is sleeping under extra blankets at night, said she hopes an accord on funding in Washington can be reached soon.
"I hope it gets approved because there are a lot of other people that are worse off than my husband and I," she said.
"I don't know how much more I can turn the heat down," she added.