Fighting for the Right to Save

Many of us spend our childhoods being told to save money where we can: save up our allowance to buy a toy we want, save the leavings of the Tooth Fairy for a treat. As we grow older, the message that savings accounts and other savings options are a good idea is hammered into us, and with good reason. People with access to liquidity of some form or another are in a much safer and more stable financial position than people who are not, and the low savings rate in the US is a cause for concern. Having money means you can get out of an abusive relationship and not have to worry about the first month’s rent and deposit on a new place. It means buying a car for yourself. It means paying medical expenses. It means not having to choose between two vital needs like food and heating.

There is an assumption that savings is strongly recommended and accessible to everyone, even though that second part is patently not true, given how many people in the US live from paycheque to paycheque, unable to save any money at all because they’re spending exactly as much as they get. This isn’t a sign of failing or personal weakness on their parts, but rather an indicator of how low poverty-level wages in the United States are, making it impossible to survive and aspire to becoming more financially stable when you live on a limited income.

Another group of people doesn’t have the luxury of being able to save money: disabled people. In order to access Medicaid and other key government benefits, disabled people must have assets that do not exceed $2,000, which is a paltry sum in this era. While that amount might be beyond the ken of some people struggling to make a living, it’s a not unreasonable amount to have in savings. Indeed, it’s more like a minimum, when many authorities recommend that people have approximately six months’ worth of expenses put by in case of emergency. There are few places in the US where you can live on $4,000 a year.

Disabled people with assets over $2,000 lose benefits eligibility. It starts with cuts to benefits, and ends with being pulled off benefits altogether. The argument from the government’s perspective is that people with money can afford to pay their own way, and the government doesn’t want to create a situation where wealthier individuals work the system for disability benefits when they’re clearly not needed. This raises the images of middle and upper class people slipping into the welfare office for juicy benefits cheques if it weren’t for strict limits, but that’s not really how it works.

What this system actually does is put disabled people in a state of enforced poverty. If they get part-time jobs or start saving, or both, their benefits drop, chewing into any of the income or savings they’ve built up, so they’re effectively right where they were before. Or they can drop the idea of earning money and getting more independent, relying on government benefits for support and living lives of extreme economic vulnerability. The poverty rate in the disability community is nearly double that of the nondisabled community as a result — and this system hasn’t changed in decades.

Meanwhile, disability rights advocates have been pushing for changes to the policies that would allow disabled people to have larger savings accounts, as well as being able to work part or even full-time while still receiving some benefits. They want to see a more appropriately-scaled system that accounts for the varied nature of disability and also promotes economic independence. Everyone deserves the right to economic freedom and the ability to control their own economic destiny, and no one should be dependent on the mercy or kindness of others for basic needs; a disabled woman should never feel trapped with an abusive partner because she can’t afford to leave him.

Finally, after years of pressure and demands for a hearing on the issue, it seems like Congress might be moving forward with some changes to the law. This has been in the wind for years now, so it’s not certain that Congress will take it seriously with this round, but it’s a possibility; what Congress is proposing is the creation of tax-free disability savings accounts which would allow people to deposit up to $100,000 for use on life expenses. While controlling how people use their savings isn’t ideal, the ABLE Act would allow disabled people to experience economic freedom with accounts in their own name, not managed by trustees or guardians, and it would create a framework for building a savings, and a life.

It would also create a reason for more community engagement. Disabled people are often cut off from the larger community as a result of ableism, access issues, limited mobility, and not engaging in the work environment. Being more economically independent creates more social mobility in the sense that disabled people could work, go out with friends, and engage with the community as a fully-fledged member, rather than as a figure of pity and disdain. While disability savings accounts wouldn’t magically solve the many problems faced by disabled people in the US, they would be a very positive step in the right direction, a push towards the acknowledgement of universal rights for disabled people, who, just like the nondisabled people who set the bulk of the policy that governs their lives, have hopes and dreams, and the desire to live safely and securely.

Piggy bank by Pictures of Money, Flickr.