The state treasurer unveiled a program Wednesday that will allow people with disabilities to build investment accounts without losing state and federal benefits.
Beth Pearce said Vermonters with disabilities, or their guardians, can visit a new website to sign up for an investment account that will be held in the name of the person with the disability.
The accounts are known as ABLE, which stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience. They are named after a federal law passed in 2014 that allowed state treasurers to administer the accounts for people with disabilities.
Vermonters can invest up to $14,000 a year in their account and pay no taxes on the interest. There is a lifetime limit on the investment in the ballpark of $400,000. Prior to the 2014 federal law, people would become ineligible for certain disability programs if they had more than $2,000 in assets.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman said the accounts would help bring people out of poverty. Currently, 21.6 percent of people with disabilities live in poverty, Zuckerman said, versus 7.9 of people without disabilities.
Kirsten Murphy, the executive director of the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, said she has been working on the issue for a decade. She pointed to a report that called ABLE “the most transformative policy change since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.”
Murphy said: “In basic fairness, families should be able to put away money. (In) the same way that they might put away money in a college-type savings account, they should be able to put it away for a child or children with disabilities.”
Max Barrows, the outreach director for Green Mountain Self-Advocates, identified himself as being on the autism spectrum and receiving developmental disability services. He described how the ABLE program would help people like him.
“(The accounts) will allow us to pay our own way and be seen as contributing, responsible members of society,” Barrows said. “An ABLE account is important to me because it allows me to get ahead and be more independent because I can save to pay for disability-related expenses.”
Barrows asked the audience to imagine what it would be like to live their whole lives without ever saving more than $2,000. “Some parents feared their son or daughter with a disability would lose their benefits if they made a mistake when keeping track of their money,” he said.
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee spearheaded the development of the program in a 2015 bill that directed Pearce’s office to set up the Vermont ABLE program by working with a task force of disability advocates.
Tim Lueders-Dumont, who works in Pearce’s office, said the office has set up Vermont’s ABLE program without administrative cost to the state by piggybacking on a program in Ohio.
He said Pearce’s office thoroughly vetted programs in other states. More than a dozen disability rights organizations endorsed using Ohio’s program, and many of those organizations were represented on the task force.
Gov. Phil Scott called Pearce “pragmatic” for working with another state to set up the program. “I hope that we’ll have other opportunities in the future to work with states on initiatives such as this,” he said.
“We’re such a small state with a small population (that) it makes sense for us to try to work with another state to try to administer the program more efficiently and get the maximum benefit for individuals,” Scott said.