Empowered Cities: Financial Empowerment for People with Disabilities

February 22, 2018
Bob Annibale, Citi Pride Affinity Co-lead
Michael Morris, Executive Director, National Disability Institute

Last month, Tracy McKnight participated in the launch of EmpoweredNYC, a new program led by Citi Community Development, National Disability Institute (NDI) and the City of New York. EmpoweredNYC is the first pilot under Empowered Cities, a $2 million national initiative to enable municipalities to expand financial empowerment and economic inclusion for people living with disabilities and their families.

As the first local program of Empowered Cities, EmpoweredNYC will focus on enabling New Yorkers with disabilities, across the five boroughs, to improve their financial stability. Using a three-tier approach, the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs Office of Financial Empowerment, the NYC Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, Citi Community Development, National Disability Institute, Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, and the Poses Family Foundation will advance financial capability through broad engagement and education, tailored one-on-one financial counseling enhanced with new expertise, outreach and tools, and specialized benefits support services.

Tracy McKnight was not born with a disability. When she was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the bone cartilage called Chondrosarcoma, she was an employed, active and fully independent college graduate. Unfortunately, the disease metastasized, and in 2009 her right leg was amputated above the knee.

In addition to the many physical and medical challenges she must manage every day as a result of her disease, Tracy now lives in a state of persistent financial vulnerability. Her medical expenses quickly depleted all of her savings before she became eligible for government-sponsored medical insurance. In order to meet basic needs – which for her include medical devices, regular screenings and treatments – she is forced to strike a careful balance of working and earning a decent income without jeopardizing her access to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other support services, which have strict eligibility limits on assets and earned income. And despite having sought guidance from several different organizations and agencies, she was left to find her own way through a maze of benefits -- a journey made more complicated by inconsistent and often incorrect advice.

Tracy's situation, however, is far from unique. More than 50 million people in the United States live with a disability, and one in four households include a child or an adult with a disability. According to research from National Disability Institute, even the most financially stable individuals with disabilities have difficulty managing their finances and navigating the complex web of benefits, insurance, medical costs, and long-term supports while still preparing for retirement or the expense of an unexpected emergency. Like Tracy, many people living with disabilities must overcome those same challenges every day while living on extremely low or volatile incomes.

Empowered Cities Infographic

Only one in three working-age people with a disability are employed, according to NDI. The median earnings for people with disabilities in 2015 was just $21,572, less than 68 percent of the median earnings for those without a disability. People with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to have extreme difficulty paying bills, and are almost twice as likely to skip medical treatments because of cost. They are also twice as likely to be unbanked, or resort to often expensive predatory nonbank sources of credit. The financial pressures can be so great, and the constraints of social safety nets so limiting, that some families turn to crowdfunding platforms for donations to pay medical bills and meet basic expenses.

These are issues that touch all of us in some way. Disability is a natural part of our life experiences whether beginning at birth, acquired as an adult or experienced as part of aging. The extra costs of living with disabilities, and the need for long-term supports, creates financial instability that deserves the urgent attention of policy makers at all levels.

Under Empowered Cities, National Disability Institute's program and policy experts will apply what we have learned over the past 12 years to create city-specific strategies that foster collaboration with the participation of municipal agencies, community nonprofits, and financial institutions. NDI will build new trainings and customize financial inclusion models that leverage the strengths of partners to meet residents' specific needs to set financial goals, overcome financial challenges, make more informed financial decisions, and implement personalized pathways to a better economic future. Financial inclusion strategies will be sensitive to the diversity of types and severity of disability, age of onset, cultural background, employment status and education levels. The goal is to build the capacity of municipalities to support people with disabilities and their families with financial education and one-on-one guidance delivered by highly trained and trusted financial counselors at convenient and accessible locations.

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was a monumental achievement for establishing and protecting the rights of those living with disabilities and their families, and ensuring all individuals with disabilities the opportunity to achieve "economic self-sufficiency." However, in the 27 years since the ADA was signed into law, this population still faces numerous challenges and roadblocks to achieving financial inclusion and independence. Through the Empowered Cities initiative, we are taking the first steps toward building communities that are financially inclusive for all.

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