Building Assets for People with Disabilities

In the early days of the asset-building movement, we sought to test the simple theory that low-income people could and would save if provided the means, incentive and structure to do so. Projects like the American Dream Demonstration (ADD), the Savings for Education, Entrepreneurship and Downpayment Initiative (SEED) and the Assets for Independence Program (AFI) have helped establish that simple truth. A new, more empowering way of helping low-income Americans was born.

But in establishing that baseline, in hindsight, we did not address the needs of all groups as effectively as we might have. One such group is people with disabilities. There are more people living with disabilities than you might think. One in five Americans has a disability, and one in 10 has a significant disability. Those are big numbers. People with disabilities are less than one-third as likely to be employed as people without disabilities. Worse, people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty. People with disabilities have a hard time making ends meet each month, and despite the fact that they face a particularly complex set of rules to acquire and maintain public benefits and support, they even have less access to financial education.

Given the needs of many people with disabilities and the promise of the asset-building movement, it is not surprising that some practitioners have been drawn to the concept of Individual Development Accounts (IDAs). IDAs have the potential to be a particular help to people with disabilities who would like to use the accounts to acquire assistive technology which in many cases might make them more employable. But AFI, the greatest source of IDA funds, presents a couple of structural challenges. Specifically, AFI does not permit the use of unearned income as the participant contribution, and AFI does not include assistive technology as a permissible asset goal.

If the goal of IDAs is to help accountholders achieve financial security, helping accountholders become more employable is a desirable outcome. There are a few local jurisdictions where local money enables practitioners to match accountholder contributions of unearned income en route to acquisition of assistive technology. For example, Community Vision, Inc. (CVI) in Oregon and the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF) in Pennsylvania enroll participants for this purpose. They not only provide financial education and IDAs, but also life skills training that help prepare program participants for independence.

Currently seven savers are enrolled in CVI's Future IDA program for the express purpose of acquiring assistive technology. In addition, five individuals have successfully completed loan applications for assistive technology or adapted equipment via CVI's Oregon Accessibility Loan Program. In the last three years the requests for IDA accounts have quadrupled as individuals experiencing a disability and their families become aware of IDAs as a viable tool to save. In fact, Community Vision estimates they could currently easily enroll 50 individuals a year into IDA accounts if federal dollars to help create a larger match pool for savers became available. Similarly, PATF recently completed a pilot program—the Money Club—for 17 young adults who have disabilities. The program incorporated financial education with the establishment of an IDA account – the savings from which were used to purchase assistive technology. Several of the members purchased devices that have enabled them to get jobs.

As word has spread about the success of the Money Club, others have asked to join. This fall, PATF will begin working with 12 transition-age students who attend Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. Each student receives SSI, none has a bank account and all are interested in living independently after high school. One can easily see the need for programs like the Money Club in the disability community and the potential for asset building to help a large constituency gain financial independence.

In order to better address the needs of people with disabilities, we offer two recommendations. First, when AFI is eventually re-authorized, particular attention should be given to the needs and goals of people with disabilities, who are potentially large beneficiary group. In addition, more states should incorporate the needs and goals of people with disabilities in their state IDA programs.

People with disabilities are ready to build assets too.

Ren? Bryce-Laporte is Principal at Bryce-Laporte Information & Consulting. Susan Tachau is Executive Director of Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation. Joe Wykowski is Executive Director of Community Vision, Inc.

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