Chris Newlon placed a picture of her 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca, on a lectern at the Thompson Center Monday morning.
Newlon was there for a press conference, but Rebecca loves school so much she wouldn’t skip class to be there with her mom.
But Rebecca, who has Down Syndrome, a heart defect and hearing loss in both ears, is among the thousands of children and adults who will benefit from the investment program that officially kicked off Monday.
A 14-state partnership will allow people with disabilities, or who are blind, to open an Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) investment account where they can save money for expenses including education, housing, transportation, employment training and support or any other expenses related to their condition without disqualifying for other federal aid programs.
“Being able to open an ABLE account is bigger than many of you realize,” Newlon said. “It could make a difference between simply existing in life and living a really good life. My daughter and thousands of others who want to live as independently as possible will be able to save for their education, get the support and services they might need in school and get the necessary training needed for a meaningful job.”
Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs said the ABLE program will ease the financial burden of people with disabilities or blindness without jeopardizing their federal benefits. He has been working with other state representatives for more than a year to get the accounts off the ground.
“Perhaps no group in America has had more financial roadblocks,” Frerichs said. “But today we can finally say that there’s a new path for a brighter future.”
Individuals who developed a disability or blindness before the age of 26 and who qualify for Social Security benefits or have received an IRS waiver are eligible to open an ABLE account.
Beneficiaries will be able to keep up to $100,000 in their ABLE accounts without that money being counted against them when figuring benefits from Social Security or other federal programs, such as Medicaid. Currently, the limit is $14,000, an amount tied to the federal gift tax.
Besides Illinois, the other participating states are: Alaska, Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. That will cover about one-fourth of the disabled community in the United States. Frerichs’ office expects 36,000 accounts to be opened by Illinois residents in the first five years and 500,000 in all 14 participating states.
Gene Bensinger, a board member at the Chicagoland chapter of Autism Speaks, said the agreement is a culmination of over 10 years of hard work. The program gives families “a terrific savings tool” that won’t keep them from qualifying for other benefits.
Bensinger, who has a 24-year-old son diagnosed with severe autism, recalled how he would advise his grandparents and relatives not to give money to his son on his birthdays; he had to keep his bank account low in order to qualify for Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid or other benefits. That precaution that won’t be necessary with this new program.
“We are very excited that this tool is in the hands of families now,” Bensinger added. Now, he added, “we need families to understand the program, understand how it works and start saving.”