On November 15th, Sen. Robert Casey proposed S1872: Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2011. This bill (also, H.R. 3423) would allow families to create savings accounts that can be used for the health and education of a family member with a disability. Sen. Casey introduced the bill specifically to give parents of children with disabilities the same financial benefits as those parents with children who are not disabled.
Another important component of the bill is the assurance that building assets in this designated account will not count against income requirements for receiving assistance. This means that families will continue receiving public assistance for their child’s disability in addition to saving money for preschool through post-secondary education tuition and related expenses, housing, transportation, and health, prevention, and wellness. These are important resources for increasing stability in households that may experience a lot of unpredictability.

While this policy sounds like a good way to help parents and caregivers think about and plan for their children’s future, is it ensuring that all children with disabilities can access these savings accounts? Last week, our blog highlighted the 2010 Child Maltreatment Report, which indicates that our state has a disproportionate number of children with disabilities in Child Protection – 25% of whom are classified as having an emotional or behavioral disability.
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But what does Minnesota’s maltreatment data have to do with the ABLE Act? Not only are there increasing numbers of children with disabilities in Child Protection, but a majority of those disabilities are due to mental health or other emotional behavioral disorders. However, ABLE defines an individual with a disability as those receiving Title XIX supplemental security income (SSI) and Title II survivor benefits, under the Social Security Act. This means that many families and caregivers of children in Minnesota’s child welfare system that have mental health and behavioral disorders could not open an ABLE savings account because those disorders rarely qualify a child for SSI.

The implications of this are not evident on the surface, but a critical analysis identifies a gap in this policy for children in poverty and children in out of home placement. Children with emotional behavioral disorders are more likely to live in poverty and more than half of the children entering foster care are experiencing mental health or behavioral disorders. Furthermore, while emotional or behavioral disabilities rarely qualify a child for SSI benefits, they can be a huge barrier to academic success and subsequently, the positive life experiences the ABLE Act hopes to promote.