ABLE Act: Good News on Multiple Levels

Monday, April 20, 2015

With the benefit of a few months of perspective, there are even more reasons to celebrate passage of the ABLE Act than were, perhaps, immediately apparent last December. Here, AEDI's Top 10 Reasons why ABLE bodes well, for Congress, for the asset community, and for America.

10. Even ABLE's name clearly frames assets as a building block for improved life outcomes ABLE stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience. Yes, of course, it was in part an effort to come up with a catchy name and acronym. But it also helps with the message that assets=better lives, not just stronger financial balance sheets, and that's good framing for those of us who firmly believe that an asset-empowered America is a healthier and, ultimately, happier one.

9. ABLE chips away at the asset tests that create unjust double standards and perverse disincentives for those who depend on transfer programs and other social supports to save. It's not right that some families can receive considerable tax benefits to support their asset accumulation, while others (including many with disabilities, the focus of the ABLE Act) face big penalties for the same actions. We need broad repeal of asset limits, but ABLE takes a step in the right direction.

8. With debate over ABLE, Congress illustrated that they can still come together to tackle even really substantive issues (here, including tax and entitlement reform) and, perhaps even more significantly, that they can be motivated to do so in part because of compassion for each other. Members of Congress told their stories, and those of thei constituents, and it seems that their colleagues really cared. That's a big deal.

7. ABLE positions savings and income supports as entirely compatible, eroding the false dichotomy between government assistance with basic needs (here, especially, health care) and the development of a strong asset foundation for future goals. We can only achieve equitable policy outcomes if people can simultaneously rely on essential government supports and be assisted in building assets to reach their future objectives. ABLE advances that vision.

6. An impressive coalition of disability rights, health care, and economic justice organizations--among others--came together to pass ABLE. That proves not only that grassroots advocacy and great policy ideas can, still, sometimes win, but also that constituencies outside of the 'asset movement' can advance asset policy. Most of ABLE's activists weren't asset insiders; they are parents and individuals with disabilities who saw asset accumulation as an important part of their preparation for the future and sought to dismantle policy obstacles that stood in their way.

5. In the process, the movement to pass ABLE incited more momentum for asset policies, bringing new voices into the effort and laying a foundation for future, more broad-based, advocacy efforts.

4. ABLE illustrated that, with the right framing and the necessary 'push', nearly any member of Congress can become an asset-building champion. It's really amazing to Google "ABLE Act" and see how many members of Congress--of both political parties, across the country and from all ideological perspectives--are claiming ABLE as 'theirs'. We have long believed that asset development shouldn't be partisan, and ABLE shows that it doesn't have to be.

3. ABLE should really improve the lives of individuals with disabilities, allowing them to build assets while still preserving the safety net services on which they depend. The proof, ultimately, is in these outcomes, and positive evidence from ABLE should pave the way for greater expansion of other asset-building efforts, too.

2. Similarly, ABLE should demonstrate that individuals can be freed from asset tests without bankrupting the safety net. And individuals are expected to increase their savings, even with considerable obstacles to asset development. If we do a good job evaluating and documenting outcomes from ABLE, it should provide additional evidence of the benefits of asset building--evidence that we can, then, leverage to spur further policy progress.

1. Congress did the right thing for people with disabilities when it passed ABLE. It isn't enough, surely; as Justin King pointed out in his commentary on ABLE, the tax-advantaged savings accounts it prefers are not designed to work well for low-income individuals. Congress cut costs by limiting ABLE to those whose disabilities manifest before their 26th birthday, an arbitrary, unfortunate, and unjust limitation. And, of course, the same savings limits that constrain the mobility of those with disabilities still plague millions of Americans who depend on safety-net programs. ABLE is only one small step toward a vision of a policy structure that supports financial security and economic mobility for all. But it got Speaker John Boehner on the record saying this:

"This won't just make it easier for individuals with disabilities to save — it will help build a stronger economy and secure a better future for our country. After all, the principle that anyone can succeed no matter where they start is what gives the American Dream its staying power. The problem is, we're letting outdated laws place arbitrary limits on the very people who show us what can be done with perseverance."

And that's a start.

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