When the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act was passed into law, many Americans with disabilities were empowered to save for qualified expenses without fear of losing their much-needed federal and state benefits. This was a major step forward for those deserving such support. Now, just over five years after the ABLE Act was passed into law, we have the chance to expand this legislation to include a much larger group of our disabled Americans. The ABLE Age Adjustment Act seeks to build upon the law’s primary success, and accelerate the progress achieved over the next five years.
Prior to ABLE’s passage in December 2014, disabled Americans risked losing means-tested benefits, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), any time they saved over $2,000 in their own name. The ABLE Act recognized the extra significant costs of living with a disability, allowing individuals to contribute up to $15,000 annually. However, an age cap in the law causes millions of Americans who acquire disabilities after the age of 26 to remain ineligible to enroll in ABLE’s programs.
As president of the National Association of State Treasurers (NAST) and as Massachusetts state Treasurer, I have seen firsthand the positive impact ABLE has had on the lives of disabled individuals and their families. More and more people are enrolling every day, and as of June 2019 almost 46,000 accounts have been opened, with a total of $259.8 million in assets and an average individual account balance of $5,656.
Brian Guay of Bedford, Mass., is a perfect example of someone whose life has been changed by this program. He receives his federal benefits, works three jobs, and saves into his Massachusetts ABLE account without harming his other benefits. Brian has both a special needs trust and an ABLE account. His parents say that while he doesn’t fully understand what the trust does, he completely understands how his ABLE account works and goes to the local Fidelity branch every month to make deposits. Brian’s experience highlights the tremendous value of ABLE accounts. They are easy to understand and provide immediate access to funds that pay for qualified disability expenses. Having this account has had an extraordinarily positive impact on Brian’s life.
While enrollment is growing and the success of the program is clear, new legislation will enhance its impact enormously. By lifting the age cap, millions more Americans will have the same opportunity as Brian. Last year, the ABLE Age Adjustment Act was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and in the House by Reps. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). The bill would raise the age of eligibility of participants from 26 to 46. This change is essential as so many individuals, most notably veterans, often become disabled later in life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of August 2018, more than 4 million veterans reported a service-oriented disability. A large portion of these veterans are over the age of 26 and are presently ineligible for ABLE. Passage of the ABLE Age Adjustment Act would enhance the quality of their lives and those of their family’s also.
At the NAST’s February Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., state Treasurers from across the country will come together to discuss some of the most pressing issues affecting our country and individual states. The ABLE Age Adjustment Act will be a major focus as we look for more ways to improve individuals’ financial wellness across the country.
Many Americans with disabilities can now confidently save for their future through ABLE. However, too many others continue to live under constant financial stress, balancing saving for expenses against the option of receiving crucial government benefits. These two options should not be mutually exclusive. By passing the ABLE Age Adjustment Act, we can ensure that more people have access to ABLE programs, helping them achieve greater security and stability throughout their lives.
Deborah B. Goldberg is president of the National Association of State Treasurers and Massachusetts State Treasurer.