When Julie Chick’s first son, Blake, was born with Down syndrome 14 years ago, the Nehalem family faced a financial conundrum.
They had to balance investing in Blake’s future while keeping his assets below $2,000 if they wanted their son to remain eligible for Supplemental Security Income and health insurance through Medicaid.
“We undid his savings account years ago and got rid of everything because we didn’t want to jeopardize any Social Security that he would get later on in life,” Chick said.
“Those of us with children or adults with disabilities didn’t have the power to save money because we could risk losing all his possible benefits.”
That changed for the Chick family this week when she signed her son up for an ABLE account.
“This is huge,” she said.
The Oregon ABLE Savings Plan is a state-based program that allows people with disabilities to work toward financial security without putting them at risk of losing government benefits.
ABLE accounts — established by Congress through the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act in 2014 — launched at a national level in 2016. In Oregon, there are more than 2,100 account holders.
In Clatsop County, just 14 accounts have been created, but that number is on the rise.
“It’s slow going,” said Kaellen Hessel, the program’s advocacy and outreach manager. “One family at a time.”
Data from the Oregon Office on Disability and Health show 27% of residents in Clatsop County live with some sort of disability. Of those people, about a third live in poverty.
“Hopefully, we’ll see a change in this,” Hessel said. “They didn’t think they could save, but now they can.”
Compared to other programs that can take months or years to receive, ABLE is designed to be simple and fast, with minimal restrictions. It only takes about 15 minutes to apply.
The ease, according to Hessel, is part of the reason the program has been slow to spread.
“We sound too good to be true,” she said.
“For decades they’ve been told, ‘You can’t have more than $2,000.’ They have been functionally forced to stay in poverty. Then they hear there is this new thing.”
Chick was initially skeptical of ABLE. She waited more than a year before signing up to ensure the program was as beneficial and secure as it sounded. Now, she looks forward to seeing Blake build savings the same way his little brother can.
“We were really disappointed to not have a savings account for our son,” Chick said. “Just because somebody has an intellectual disability does not mean that they don’t need to save for their future. In fact, they probably need to think about it even more.”
This week, the Oregon Savings Network hosted a series of engagement workshops throughout Clatsop County. Hessel met with 13 employees from NW Community Alliance, a local nonprofit that works with people with disabilities.
The nonprofit will be one of the first programs in Oregon to partner with ABLE and help people who need guidance or assistance with their finances.
“Our goal is to get our clients more flexibility that’s due to them,” said Joy Kropielniski, who works for the nonprofit. “ABLE will be able to do this.”
The partnership will be especially helpful for coastal residents like the Chick family. They frequently found themselves driving the “services triangle,” as Chick called it, between Astoria, Tillamook and Portland to receive the care they needed for Blake.
Hessel recognizes that coastal towns, like other rural regions of the state, do not have the same access to services as people living in metropolitan areas.
“We’re a statewide program,” she said. “So we need to actually be everywhere in the state.”
So far, the outreach is working. ABLE has already received the same number of applicants from Clatsop County so far this year as it did in both 2017 and 2018.
“We’re trying to get our disability community being able to participate in life just like anybody else,” Chick said. “It should look no different. That’s the whole point here.”