ABLE Accounts and Disability in Rural America

July 13, 2021

ABLE accounts – tax-advantaged savings accounts that allow people with disabilities to save money without losing access to most means-tested government benefits – have been around since 2014. However, national and rural enrollment into ABLE accounts has been relatively sparse due to a variety of barriers.

Andrew Myers, RTC:Rural Project Director; Theresa Baldry, Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities Project Coordinator; and Isaac Baldry, disability consultant and ABLE account owner; were invited to present at the National Association of State Treasurer’s Annual Management Training Symposium on June 24 to speak about disability in rural America and barriers to ABLE account ownership.

Myers gave an overview of the layout of rural America, including increased prevalence of disability combined with lack of services – transportation, healthcare, and internet access.

Map of 2020 OMB county designations - 1,175 metro counties; 650 micropolitan counties; 1,276 noncore counties.

Isaac and Theresa Baldry talked about the practicality and barriers to ABLE account ownership – which has several unique requirements, including that beneficiaries must have a disability onset prior to age 26, that limit the number of people who are eligible to create accounts.

Isaac shared barriers he experienced as a Montana resident:

  • a 130-page disclosure document written in technical language that is difficult to understand, especially by people that require plain language documents
  • online-only enrollment, which is common in many states including Montana and Indiana
  • lack of an ‘app’ or other simple way for someone with smartphone-only access to easily enroll
  • lack of local knowledge, which means potential enrollees can’t speak to someone at a local bank or other institution about the program
  • mistrust of placing money in a ‘virtual’ space that has no tangible component or community connection
  • having to select a ‘disability code’ to assign the category a person’s disability belongs to, which can be especially daunting for people with multiple-diagnoses and other unique situations

The symposium’s organizer, Advocacy and Outreach Manager of Oregon ABLE Kaellen Hessel, shared that the presentation gave ABLE managers from across the country knowledge that may lead to changes in ABLE outreach and marketing.

“Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experiences with us. It’s definitely making me rethink how we do things, and I’m sure that’s also the case for many of my counter[parts],” Hessel said. “I don’t think enough people in our industry realize how many people with disabilities do actually try and give up because of [the disclosure document].”

Despite these barriers, Isaac shared some the benefits of having an ABLE account as well, including using it to help him grow his money and receive tax-deductible contributions from family members, and using the account to save for assistive technology, a vehicle, and housing.

Some states, like Oregon, also have paper-enrollment options, and bills are in Congress to raise the disability onset date to 46, which would greatly increase the number of people eligible to enroll in ABLE accounts.

In Montana, there are almost 500 people with ABLE accounts with a combined $4 million in savings. Still, mistrust of bureaucracy, lack of access, and simply lack of money to save limits many eligible people from taking part in ABLE.

Andrew Myers is still hopeful that the presentation and continued work will be of benefit to people whose lives can be improved by having access to the savings program.

“ABLE accounts can be particularly impactful for people living in rural areas. It was a pleasure working with the National Association of State Treasurers to share our knowledge about disability in rural communities with a new (to us) audience,” he said. “We hope that we have provided ABLE administrators with a better understanding of how best to reach and serve potential beneficiaries throughout rural America.”

Presentation PowerPointRural America at a Glance + ABLE Accounts: Rural Story Process & Potential Barriers

Learn more about ABLE accounts: