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Poverty For Americans With Disabilities Rises, Now Double U.S. Rate

September 18, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC (September 18, 2014) -- As unemployment and poverty decline across the nation, both indicators for Americans with disabilities are now double the national average and poverty is on the rise, a Senate committee reported today. The release of the U.S. Census Bureau statistics prompted renewed calls on Congress to pass the ABLE Act to dramatically increase the private resources available for adults with disabilities to pay for their housing, medical, transportation and other needs.

“If almost 30 percent of people with disabilities are living in poverty; a rate that is going up; and the unemployment rate for people with disabilities continues to be double that of people without disabilities, and only 20 percent participate in the workforce, then we face a serious problem – indeed, a crisis," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

"We are far from meeting the ADA’s goal of economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities," said Harkin [pictured (right) with ranking member Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)], referring to the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that he authored in 1990. “To state the obvious, not being part of the workforce contributes powerfully to the incidence of poverty."

The Census Bureau data showed the rate of poverty in America in 2013 declined overall to 14.5 percent; but the rate for people with disabilities increased to 28.8 percent. Separately, the latest unemployment data shows joblessness nationwide has declined to 6 percent, but for those with disabilities it stands at 12.8 percent. Less than 20 percent of the 29 million Americans with disabilities  over 16 years of age participate in the workforce compared with nearly 70 percent of those without a disability.

For the autism community, an estimated half-million Amerricans with ASDs are expected to "age out" of school-based supports as they reach age 21 over the next 10 years, accelerating the need for housing, employment and adult services.

Harkin released a committee report, "Fulfilling the Promise: Overcoming Persistent Barriers to Economic Self-Sufficiency for People with Disabilities," assessing the housing, employment, transportation and other barriers facing Americans with disabililties. The findings were based on interviews with 400 Americans with disabilities living in poverty.

Among those findings were:

  • Living with a disability in America can be both economically and socially costly
  • Many people with disabilities fear that earning or saving too much money could cause them to lose access to supports that they need to live independently in the community
  • People with disabilities often cannot save for emergencies and unanticipated challenges
  • People with disabilities continue to report experiencing employment discrimination, discriminatory wages, inaccessible workplaces, and persistently low expectations about what they can accomplish

The Achieving A Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act (S.313/HR.647) now before Congress would allow tax-exempt savings accounts for individuals with disabilities without losing their eligibility for Social Security supplemental income, Medicaid and other public benefits. Holding more than $2,000 in lifetime savings under current law puts those benefits at risk. ABLE accounts could be used to pay for housing, medical, transportation, educational and other needs.

Alexander and Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), the original Senate sponsor of S.313, urged passage of the bill and several witnesses who testified before the HELP committee also said ABLE could be a valuable tool to tackle poverty.

"There is no way to save for emergencies and other things to help pull them out of poverty," said Becky Duncan Massey, a Tennessee state senator who has worked 21 years as a disabilities provider. "The $2,000 limit that was established when the program was started is equal to almost $13,000 in today’s dollars. The ABLE act could help with this." 

The bill (HR.647) awaits a House floor vote; S.313 awaits Senate action. Supporters, including Autism Speaks, are urging Congress to vote on the legislation before it recesses for the November elections. The ABLE bills have gained cosponsorships from 80 percent of the House and 75 percent of the Senate, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).