SUN IN­VES­TI­GATES Dis­abled adults are able to save

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

For decades, peo­ple liv­ing with dis­abil­i­ties could not save more than $2,000 with­out run­ning the risk of los­ing key ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing their Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come. But fol­low­ing Mary­land’s adop­tion of a re­cent change in the fed­eral tax code, it re­ported that about 1,000 dis­abled in­di­vid­u­als put away nearly $4 mil­lion in a sin­gle year to help them pay for ev­ery­thing from spe­cial di­ets and hear­ing aids to rent, Uber fares and tech­nol­ogy to sup­port their in­de­pen­dence.

Sama Bel­lomo of Bal­ti­more’s Fells Point neigh­bor­hood said she has not been able to put much in her new Mary­land ABLE sav­ings ac­count, but it is more than she has ever saved be­fore. The 36-year-old woman has a se­vere ge­netic con­nec­tive tis­sue dis­or­der.

“It's enough for a mod­est car re­pair,” said Bel­lomo, who works in re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion tech­nol­ogy for the state Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. “Bet­ter still, when I’m in the hos­pi­tal, I don’t have to worry about go­ing home and not be­ing able to pay the rent be­cause I couldn't work.”

Mod­eled af­ter the 2014 fed­eral Achiev­ing a Bet­ter Life Ex­pe­ri­ence Act, the state cre­ated the ABLE pro­gram in 2016 to pro­vide “more in­de­pen­dence, greater fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity and a bet­ter qual­ity of life” for peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties.

The ac­counts can be opened with as lit­tle as a $25 de­posit and can be used to pay for ex­penses as­so­ci­ated with the per­son’s dis­abil­ity, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing, per­sonal sup­port ser­vices and fu­neral costs. Sav­ings are capped at $15,000 a year, al­though peo­ple who are work­ing and do not con­trib­ute to a re­tire­ment plan can con­trib­ute up to $12,000 more, de­pend­ing on their salary.

In­ter­est earn­ings from the ac­count and any money with­drawn are tax free when used for qual­i­fy­ing ex­penses. Peo­ple who con­trib­ute to an ABLE ac­count can sub­tract up to $2,500 per year from their Mary­land tax­able in­come.

The state ex­pects the pro­gram could cost up to $2 mil­lion in rev­enue lost from in­come taxes.

With­out the ac­counts, ad­vo­cates say peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties were forced to live in poverty — or forgo ben­e­fits. Be­fore the fed­eral law changed the tax code, peo­ple did not have as much in­cen­tive to save money, be­cause of the risk they could lose the pub­lic as­sis­tance they de­pend on for food, shel­ter and cloth­ing. Bal­ances in an ABLE ac­count can reach $100,000 be­fore their fed­eral Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come would be im­pacted.

Bette Ann Mob­ley, direc­tor of Mary­land ABLE, said peo­ple have been “thrilled” to learn about the new sav­ings ac­counts.

“Peo­ple say, ‘It sounds great. Can it re­ally be so sim­ple?’ ” Mob­ley said. “Build­ing these re­la­tion­ships is a huge part of what we have to do.

“Peo­ple have been forced to stay in that cy­cle of poverty, never be­ing able to get ahead. This can serve as a very em­pow­er­ing pro­gram for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.”

Be­tween 31,500 and 53,600 Mary­land res­i­dents are es­ti­mated to be el­i­gi­ble. To open an ABLE ac­count, a per­son must have de­vel­oped a sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­ity be­fore they turned 26. Peo­ple with ei­ther phys­i­cal or men­tal dis­abil­i­ties can qual­ify for an ac­count.

To learn more about el­i­gi­bil­ity and to sign up for an ac­count, visit mary­land­able.org. — Yvonne Wenger

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