Savings Accounts for Disabled Americans Catch On, but Slowly - ABI

New state-based accounts that let disabled people work and save money without risking the loss of government aid are slowly catching on, but advocates say millions more people with disabilities could be taking advantage of the accounts, the New York Times reported. Forty-one states and Washington, D.C., now offer the accounts, which first became available in 2016. The tax-free accounts, known as ABLE accounts, are named after the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, the 2014 law that created them. The accounts are modeled somewhat after 529 college savings accounts and let people with disabilities save for future needs and current expenses, including education, housing and transportation, without having the money disqualify them for need-based federal benefits like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Advocates have heralded the accounts as a boon that could lift many people with disabilities out of poverty, but just a tiny fraction of people eligible for the accounts are using them so far. More than 40,000 ABLE accounts were open by the end of March, with combined balances of about $225 million, said Michael Morris, executive director of the National Disability Institute. However, the institute estimates that as many as 8 million people are eligible under current rules, which limit the accounts to people who became disabled before age 26. (The number who are eligible will swell to about 14 million if Congress approves a proposal to expand access.) The growth in accounts is well below what’s needed to keep fees affordable for participants and keep the ABLE program viable, according to an analysis in May from the National Association of State Treasurers. The analysis estimated that about 450,000 funded accounts were needed by mid-2021 for most programs “to approach self-sustainability.” It recommended “critically important” changes to make the program more robust, including expanding the pool of eligible participants. Part of the challenge in fostering more growth is that ABLE accounts have nuanced rules, and states have limited budgets to promote the accounts, said JJ Hanley, director of the Illinois ABLE program. When people do hear about the accounts, she said, they are often skeptical that opening one truly won’t jeopardize their benefits. “The disability community has to be convinced it’s real,” Ms. Hanley said.

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