The Sacramento Bee – California Forum

Published on 7/02/2020

Congress must do more to support disabled people amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how.

By Dante Allen

As a person born with a spinal condition that requires me to use a wheelchair, I have experienced firsthand the many ways in which our society marginalizes people with disabilities.

The coronavirus pandemic, which negatively affects us all, has been especially harsh on the disabled. Yes, these are trying times for most, but the times are especially challenging for people with disabilities. These types of crises expose and amplify the systems and structures we must navigate daily to stay healthy and lead full and active lives.

Many people with disabilities have weakened immune systems that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Others require the daily care of home health care aides, who may not want to continue to work because of low pay, lack of sufficient personal protective equipment and little or no sick leave. Finally, many people with disabilities are required to live in group settings that have been hard-hit by the tragic pandemic. What’s worse is that even when we work together to find support and solutions for these problems, people with disabilities are often last on the list to be thought of for help. Many of the problems we face can be ameliorated with additional financial resources. Which is why I was very happy to learn that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, (CARES) is providing help for people with disabilities by including stimulus payments to the eight million people who receive payments from Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Single adults will receive a $1,200 check, while married couples will get $2,400.

It is important to note that, for SSI recipients, this money is not considered part of their benefits. When these checks arrive, payments from CARES can be spent on whatever the recipient chooses, which is much different than their monthly benefits money, which has limits on what may and may not be purchased. Unfortunately, there is a catch. They must spend that stimulus payment within a year, or it will be counted against their benefits and could ultimately result in the suspension of the monthly payments they receive to cover basic living expenses. A great way to avoid that and use the money productively is to open a CalABLE account.

I currently serve as the executive director for CalABLE, a relatively new program operated out of the State Treasurer’s Office. CalABLE allows people with disabilities to save and invest money in tax advantaged accounts. Best of all, you can save without jeopardizing government benefits such as SSI, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Medicaid insurance. In the past, the federal government would not allow the millions of people in these programs to remain eligible if they accumulated more than $2,000 in assets. This had the effect of forcing many into a life of poverty. Now, people with a disability can accumulate a total of up to $100,000 in their CalABLE accounts and contribute up to $15,000 a year without losing their government benefits and reap the benefit of tax-free growth.

The funds can be invested in a variety of mutual funds that suit the financial objectives of each account holder. The funds can be withdrawn at any time, and investment earnings will not be taxed as long as they are spent on the everyday expenses of living a life with a disability, such as accessibility modifications, educational expenses, or recreational activities. Furthermore, the funds can be withdrawn using a pre-paid debit card that can be used everywhere that Visa debit cards are accepted.

CalABLE has nearly 4,000 account holders with $20 million in assets.

These programs across the nation were created by federal legislation in 2014, but the bill left out many people with disabilities because it limited the program to those whose disability began before age 26.

Federal legislation, S. 651 and H.R. 1814, would increase the age to 46, allowing an additional 6 million people to become eligible, according to the National Disability Institute.

As the COVID-19 crisis devastates our economy, Congress has passed legislation to help those in need – the unemployed, small businesses, hospitals as well as state and local governments.

These are laudable efforts, but none of them directly address people with disabilities. Passing legislation to expand CalABLE programs would. It is one small way to support people who face special hardships, risks and expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic, while it also sends us the message that all of us are in this crisis together.

Dante Q. Allen is the Executive Director of the California ABLE Act Board, a savings and investment program offered by the State of California. He is an appointee of the California State Treasurer, Fiona Ma, CPA. Dante has more than 25 years in service of the people of California and is a proud member of the disability community.