The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 13, 2022 1:00 am

Breaking the bond

Poverty, disability can be overcome with a robust support system

Andy Fenker

It is a tautology, a chicken-and-egg argument. Poverty and disability are fraternal twins, born of the same mother, but still distinct elements.

Disability is both a cause and effect of poverty. Likewise, poverty is both a cause and effect of disability.

Poverty among working-age people with disabilities is nearly two and a half times higher than that for people without disabilities.

Only 19% of people with disabilities work. For the 81% of others, reliance on government benefits feeds into a cycle of poverty from which escape is nearly impossible.

Research has shown that half of working-age adults who experience at least one year of impoverishment have a disabling condition. Nearly two-thirds of those who experience poverty lasting well beyond a year also have a disability.

People with disabilities are much more likely than people without disabilities of a similar income level to experience hardships: food insecurity, an inability to pay for housing and utilities, and not being able to access both preventive and basic medical care.

This is also true for families who care for a child with a disability.

Individuals with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to lack savings in the event of the financial shock of an unexpected incident. And 70% of individuals with disabilities reported they would not be able to come up with $2,000 to meet unexpected expenses.

Aside from the reality that disability leads to loss of earnings, systemic barriers appear in the form of lack of public transportation, housing that is not available to people with disabilities, low education attainment and lack of skills development – variables that can affect someone's efforts to escape economic hardship.

It is important to note the progress that has been made in the past three decades. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with a disability and guarantees that people with disabilities have “equal opportunity” to participate in American life.

Policymakers must consider poverty as it relates to disability as a component of a broader anti-poverty agenda instead of an afterthought if we are to break any link between disability and poverty.

How do we get there?

Expanding the Medicaid program can remove barriers to a healthy lifestyle, allowing more Americans to access preventive care.

Raising the minimum wage would boost the income of many workers with disabilities, who are likely to work in low-wage jobs. Likewise, raising the ceiling on what Social Security considers “substantial gainful activity” would allow people with disabilities to save, spend and invest as part of the national economy.

Investing in affordable, accessible housing and accessible transportation would enable more people with disabilities to obtain safe and stable housing and live independently, lessening the cost of nursing home placement and allowing more people with disabilities to take jobs they currently can't get to and from without spending hours in transit.

These are just first steps, but they would go a long way to ensuring that poverty and disability no longer go hand in hand.

Andy Fenker is an advocacy coordinator with the League. He lives with the lifelong challenges of a severe traumatic brain injury.

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