National Disability Institute's Washington Insider is a monthly newsletter highlighting key federal policy news that impacts the financial futures and economic empowerment of all people with disabilities. The Washington Insider tracks legislative and policy initiatives gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, specifically in the areas of taxation, asset building and economic development.


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January 2014 | Vol. 6, Issue 1
ABLE Act Update
Murray-Ryan Budget Deal
The Economic Mobility Caucus On Prize-linked Savings
Looking Ahead: The Savings Policy Landscape for 2014
CCD Annual Meeting
AAPD Releases 2013 Compendium on Disability Statistics
Sen. Warren and Others Targets Employment Credit Checks
December Employment Profile

ABLE Act Update

National disability organizations, including National Disability Institute, the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) and Autism Speaks, continue to advance critical legislation on Capitol Hill on behalf of individuals with disabilities and their families.

These advocacy groups are working to position the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act to pass in the 113th Congress. The ABLE Act would allow individuals with disabilities and their families to set up tax-advantaged savings accounts by amending the current section 529 tax code. The accounts could be used to cover a variety of costs including health care, employment support, housing, transportation, the purchase of technology and education.

To date, advocates have secured 62 cosponsors in the Senate and 324 cosponsors in the House. There is no other bill before the U.S. Congress with as much bipartisan, bicameral support as the ABLE Act. Passing this landmark legislation will go a long way to help people with disabilities enhance their quality of life and realize their life aspirations. National Disability Institute encourages you to contact your Senator and Congressperson and urge them to support the ABLE Act or thank them for their support if they are already sponsoring the bill. Find out if your senators and representative are sponsoring the ABLE Act by clicking the links below:

Senate ABLE Act Sponsors
House ABLE Act Sponsors

To find your local federal official and their contact information, visit

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Murray-Ryan Budget Deal

The bipartisan compromise budget deal negotiated by Congress and signed into law by President Obama at the end of last year, which reduced the risk of a government shutdown, is expected to have a limited, but generally positive impact on disability-related programs, including special education, if for no other reason than the law’s overall easing of sequestration, the across-the-board automatic spending cuts.

The budgetary relief is likely to be felt across the board, in programs affecting housing, education, employment services and research programs that benefit people with disabilities, according to disability rights advocates.

While the two-year budget deal removes some of the draconian cuts that were to take effect as a result of the next stage of the automatic sequestration, the budget still provides fewer dollars for almost every funded activity than it did in 2010, the last year before the sequestration took effect. Those cuts have hurt many disability programs, including special education, leading to significant strain on teachers and families.

The deal had no effect on funding for Social Security and Medicaid, although a change in the law may have an impact on those who receive medical malpractice and other settlements from third parties related to their disabilities by allowing Medicaid to access all settlements related to health expenses.

The law also included a provision relating to the pay of disabled veterans, which corrected language that its lead negotiators said was originally included by mistake. The original budget agreement decreased the annual cost of living adjustment for working-age military retirees by a total of 1 percent over 10 years, and included the pensions of disabled veterans in that cut. But, after strong criticism from veterans groups, the provision was changed to exempt veterans who retired for medical reasons.

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The Economic Mobility Caucus On Prize-linked Savings

On Jan. 14, 2014, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Doorways to Dreams (D2D) Fund hosted a discussion in Partnership with the Senate Economic Mobility Caucus. The topic was innovative solutions to increase financial engagement and economic security.  The meeting detailed new ways to connect people with their finances and discussed what legislators can do to encourage financial education, engagement and independence.

The recent recession has emphasized the important role that savings play in family economic security. Savings can help families weather economic and unemployment shocks and prevent downward mobility on the economic ladder. In fact, a recent report by Pew suggests that those who leave the bottom of the income distribution ladder have considerably higher savings and wealth than those who remain stuck in the bottom, illustrating that economic security and economic mobility go hand in hand. With this understanding, researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders have been working to educate consumers about and engage them in their personal finances. A host of innovative solutions are being developed and implemented to motivate Americans to save and to make financial education more fun and accessible.

Recent work by the Doorways to Dreams (D2D) Fund indicates that prize-linked savings products, which have been implemented across the United States and internationally by a variety of organizations, are an innovative means of addressing consumer financial behavior. These products reward positive savings behavior through the chance to win a prize, encouraging consistent and continuous savings account contributions. Additional products and services that “gamify” (use game principles in non-game contexts) educational and other aspects of personal finance could help to bridge the gap between consumer financial knowledge and action. These gamified solutions are coming from both the private sector and non-profits and are proving to be real catalysts in changing people’s financial habits and confidence in making financial decisions.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) presented the opening remarks and highlighted the American Savings Promotion Act, co-sponsored by himself and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), which would allow the creation of prize-linked savings accounts. These accounts would incentivize personal savings by offering participants chances to win prizes based on how much they deposit into savings, while never putting their savings at risk.  He emphasized the current dearth of annual savings in America and how Americans must learn how to build savings in order to build the American dream. "Prize-linked accounts are proven to increase savings rates, which empower individuals to better endure financial strain and climb the economic ladder," Sen. Moran said. "By encouraging personal saving, PLS accounts keep money in the hands of families who need it most. While this innovative tool would offer the chance of big winnings, its real value is the promise of increased financial security for all Americans."

Tim Flacke, Executive Director of the D2D Fund, discussed the Fund’s mission, to promote financial opportunity and security for low- and moderate-income persons.  He highlighted the correlation between economic mobility and the health of one’s finances, and emphasized that one quarter of the population has no savings at all.  He next spoke about Doorways to Dreams’ product test in Michigan through credit unions resulting in many people opening savings accounts..  The product test has now expanded to credit unions in four states.  The D2D fun will next launch a national program where participants will be able to save part of their tax refund and enter a sweepstakes contest to win $25,000.

Caroline Hribar, Director of Partner Development at PayPerks, spoke about her program.  She focuses on prepaid cards, which is the financial capability and rewards platform for low-income individuals.  PayPerks partners with existing prepaid programs, and offers additional rewards.  Participants in PayPerks must take an educational curriculum and make better decisions with the card such as knowing when to use credit versus debit.  Every point earned gives the participants one chance to enter a sweepstakes and win.  Participants set up an account online and begin earning points.  They link their cards to the web accounts and each comes with its own education module and sweepstakes contest.  Every module ends with two questions that participants must answer correctly to earn points.  They can also earn points by avoiding out-of-network ATMs.  All earned points go into a sweepstakes drawing.  Prizes are small, but people enjoy simply winning.

Hribar has seen 10 to 20 percent response rates on these cards.  PayPerks has more than 175,000 users since April.  Eighty three percent of participants said PayPerks was fun and exciting, with 86 percent saying that it's helping them make better financial decisions.

Lisa Blasdale, Senior Benefits Manager with Staples, spoke about starting up their 401(k) retirement savings plan for employees. The participation rate in their 401(k) was very low when it began in 1998. Associates under the age of 30 were not participating.  They were giving up free money and were disengaged.  Staples then launched a pilot project in two regions where associates designed communications and incentives for participation in the 401(k) plan. Eighty percent of associates played the game. Women especially liked the program. Staples had a registration rate of 12.5 percent. They then launched full scale across all Staples stores in the U.S.

Ray Boshara of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, directs a center at the Reserve on Household Financial Stability.  He discussed how accumulating savings and financial capital are critical to economic upward mobility and how individuals and families must have financial capital to realize social and human capital.  For instance, it is difficult to be part of a stable network, family, etc. without financial capital.  Boshara shared that half of all Americans have less than $3,000 in liquid savings. He emphasized establishing a diverse balance sheet beginning with savings.  Only then can people begin to make investments and climb the economic ladder.

The meeting concluded by noting how the moral ethic of savings may be lost and how our nation must make incentivizing savings part of the conversation.

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Looking Ahead: The Savings Policy Landscape for 2014

On Jan. 15, 2014, The Aspen Institute Initiative on Financial Security hosted a Congressional briefing to help focus policymakers throughout the next year to advance savings policies that enable all Americans to achieve lifelong financial security.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) discussed the Secure Annuities for Employee (SAFE) Retirement Act of 2013, which would aim to streamline current pension programs by providing states, employers and American workers with stronger tools for providing pensions and better secure retirement savings. Specifically, the Hatch plan takes a three-prong approach to pension reform:

  1. Public Pension Reform: This legislation aims to create a new pension plan, called the SAFE Retirement Plan, with stable, predictable costs that state and local governments may use to deliver secure pension benefits. This new tool eliminates pension plan underfunding prospectively while delivering lifetime retirement income to employees.  SAFE Retirement Plans are state regulated, market based, fixed annuity solutions to the retirement income crisis in the states, with a consumer safety net, only minimal involvement by the federal government and no federal taxes.
  2. Private Pension Reform:  The SAFE Retirement Act includes reforms designed to  help small- and mid-sized employers establish and maintain retirement savings plans for their employees.  The SAFE Retirement Act would create an innovative new plan called the Starter 401(k), a retirement savings plan that allows employees to save up to $8,000 per year, more than in an IRA, but does not involve the administrative burden or expense of a traditional 401(k) plan.  The Starter 401(k) is perfect for a small or start-up business that is not in a position to contribute to a plan but wants to help its employees save.  
  3. Access to Professional Investment Advice: The SAFE Retirement Act also would take action to stop the Department of Labor from unilaterally over-regulating 401(k) plans and IRAs.  The legislation would restore jurisdiction over the fiduciary rules in the Tax Code to the Treasury Department.  In addition, Treasury would consult with the Securities and Exchange Commission in prescribing rules relating to the professional standard of care owed by brokers and investment advisors to IRA investors.  This legislation would be consistent with the bipartisan and bicameral effort to convince the Secretary of Labor to preserve access to professional investment advice for middle class investors.

Keynote speaker Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) highlighted the need for more financial education, especially in grades K-12, and the need to emphasize and encourage savings.

During the next panel discussion, Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President of AARP for Policy, Strategy and International Affairs also highlighted the need for savings. She noted that four in 10 workers near retirement age 45 to 64 have nothing set aside in savings. There must be incentives to save through the tax code and employer offerings.  Americans also need choice of good products and services.

Andrea Levere, President of CFED, made a series of policy recommendations.  She noted that 44 percent of American households live in a state of liquid asset poverty and underscored the need for a refundable tax credit and to encourage building financial security from an early age.  She recommended reauthorization of the Higher Education Act should promote college savings and students should be encouraged to create online accounts with savings from home.  Lastly, she encouraged the simplification of the higher education tax credit to implement tax-based college savings.

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CCD Annual Meeting

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) held its annual meeting on Jan. 17, 2014. The keynote speaker, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), listed his top five legislative priorities for the year:

  1. Expand employment opportunities for persons with disabilities;
  2. Change institutional bias in Medicaid and promote community living;
  3. Increase the high school graduation rate for students with disabilities and expand their opportunities for a secondary education;
  4. Increase efforts to get Vocational Rehabilitation to transition youth into competitive employment; and
  5. Identify disability as early in a child's life as possible.

Other priorities for Sen. Harkin include the passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), passage of laws banning restraint and seclusion, amending the Air Carrier Access Act, increasing accessible technology and the passage of the Mental Health Awareness Act.  Lastly, Sen. Harkin stated that we must find common ground and work together.

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) then spoke about her child with Down Syndrome and how we must work to realize the promise of the ADA and IDEA.  Her priorities for the year were similar to those of Sen. Harkin and included:

  1. Passage of the ABLE Act and signing it into law;
  2. Getting the Elementary and Secondary Education ACT (ESEA) reauthorized;
  3. Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act which requires students to get a high school diploma or GED; and
  4. Passage of the Workforce Investment Act.

Kathryn Olson, Democratic staff director to the Social Security Subcommittee for the House Ways and Means Committee, spoke about the controversy surrounding social security benefits and eligibility determinations and the difficulty in qualifying for disability benefits.  Less than 4 in 10 applicants receive SSDI even after appeals.  To be eligible, persons with disabilities must prove that they cannot do any job in the national economy. The earnings threshold is only $1,070 per month.  People who are blind have a slightly higher earning threshold.  SSDI beneficiaries are typically older, have less education, etc. Many have age-related issues and are very sick.  There has been a broad media attack on social security and social welfare, betraying a lack of understanding between disability and social security benefits.  Even House and Senate Oversight committees have begun investigating social security.  They have looked at individual case files.

Claudia Gordon, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy, asked for feedback to bring to the Obama administration. National Disability Institute (NDI) presented the issue of severe poverty and economic advancement for persons with disabilities, stressing how people with disabilities are one of the largest groups of individuals living in significant poverty in the United States. NDI requested working with the White House on policy reforms on this issue.

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AAPD Releases 2013 Compendium on Disability Statistics

One of the most important factors in setting public policy on any topic, including disability, is the need for reliable data. That’s why the release of the annual “Compendium on Disability Statistics” by the University of New Hampshire, a web-based tool that includes statistics compiled by federal agencies on subjects including employment, health care and education in an easily reviewable and searchable form, is a valuable resource.

The report documents, for example, that in 2012 (the most recent year for which data is available), that 32.7 percent of the 20,007,119 individuals with disabilities ages 18 to 64 years living in the community, (or 6,551,987 individuals) were employed, contrasting with an employment rate of 73.6 percent for individuals without disabilities in that age range. The report further breaks this number down by individual types of disabilities.
Other findings from the 2013 Compendium include:

  • Individuals with disabilities living in the community have a poverty rate of 29.2 percent, while the rate is 13.6 percent for people without disabilities.
  • In 2011, the poverty gap between individuals with and without disabilities ages 18 to 64 years living in the community was 15.0 percent. In 2012, the poverty gap between individuals with and without disabilities ages 18 to 64 years living in the community was 15.7 percent, a 0.7 percentage point increase.
  • Labor force participation for people with disabilities has been nominally decreasing since 2008. Currently, 20.6 percent of people with disabilities participate in the labor force compared to 69.4 percent of people without disabilities. 
  • 13.4 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed compared to 7.9 percent of people without disabilities.
  • 28.4 percent of people with disabilities with a Bachelor’s degree or higher are employed compared to 76.1 percent of people without disabilities.

As Mark Perriello, AAPD’s President and CEO, noted in a statement accompanying the release of the report, “Despite recent gains from the federal government to the private sector to increase economic opportunities, Americans with disabilities remain unemployed and outside the work force at alarming rates. Business, government and community organizations must work together to build outcome-oriented solutions at the local, state and national level.”

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Sen. Warren and Others Targets Employment Credit Checks

Critics of the misuse of credit checks for employment-related investigations are hoping that the support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose efforts helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, along with that of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D- RI) and other senators, and by Representative Steven Cohen in the House of Representatives, will help eliminate the unreliable and potentially discriminatory practice of employers using personal credit history to screen job applicants or employees for most positions.

The legislation, which has been introduced in similar forms in previous sessions of Congress, describes the practice as discriminatory and a violation of personal privacy. Furthermore, as consumer advocates have pointed out, employment credit checks unfairly exclude qualified workers from the very jobs that could help them get out of debt, and involve a use of a process that is far removed from the initial purpose to help lenders assess loan risks. Moreover, as research has shown, credit history is not a reliable indicator of whether a potential employee will be a good worker.

"A bad credit rating is far more often the result of unexpected medical costs, unemployment, economic downturns, or other bad breaks than it is a reflection on an individual's character or abilities," Warren said in a statement

A number of states already prohibit the use of credit reports for employment related activities.

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December Employment Profile reported that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that the unemployment rate last month dropped from 7 percent to 6.7 percent. Disability employment statistics for December show an unemployment rate among people with disabilities that dropped to 11.9 percent. The percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force was 18.7 percent, and the percentage of people with no disability in the labor force was 68.3 percent. A year ago the unemployment rate among people with disabilities was 11.7 percent.

Data on people with disabilities covers those over the age of 16 who do not live in institutions. The first employment report specific to this population was made available in February 2009 and are now released monthly.

U.S. Disability Employment Profile
With Disability
Without Disability
Percent of Population in the Labor Force
Employment-Population Ratio
Unemployment Rate
As reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-6

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