Happy Birthday ABLE: Celebrating 7 Years

By: Michael Morris, Founder of National Disability Institute (NDI), and Tom Foley, NDI Executive Director | National Disability Institute is the managing organization of the ABLE National Resource Center.

Seven years ago, on December 19th, President Obama signed into law the Achieving A Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act ushering in an era of unprecedented opportunity for millions of individuals with disabilities to open an ABLE account, grow funds contributed tax-free, set short and long-term financial goals and have an asset that, for the most part, does not adversely impact continued eligibility for means-tested public benefits such as SSI, Medicaid, food and types of housing assistance.

Whether saving for unpredictable emergency needs or larger goals like saving for a home of their own, there are over 100,000 ABLE account owners who have become savers for the first time and, with family and friends, have made a down payment on freedom and independence previously thought to be impossible.

Next month, in January 2022, the collective investment in ABLE accounts is estimated to reach over one billion dollars for the first time. The average ABLE account balance will approach $10,000. The numbers don’t tell the story of ABLE success as well as the voices of ABLE account owners. Some are below age 21 and others are closer to retirement age. The diversity of life experience crosses identities of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and level and type of disability. ABLE account owners reside in all 50 states. Some are students, some are entrepreneurs, many are in the workforce and others are pre-kindergarten-age, not yet aware of the forward thinking of their parents planning for their future. What they all do have in common is that their ABLE account will continue to grow and redefine for each of them what is achievable to be more productive, independent and positive about life possibilities.

Every day in 2022, an estimated 100 new ABLE accounts will be opened with a “down payment on freedom.” As the ABLE community of account owners continues to grow, so will the answers to the question “What are you saving for?” begin a new conversation every day.

Despite all this good news to mark the seventh “Happy Birthday, ABLE,” there is a point of data that is equally important to recognize. The fact is that less than two of every 100 ABLE-eligible individuals with disabilities has so far opened an ABLE account from one of the more than 40 state treasurers’ offices managing the ABLE program. There are an estimated eight million eligible people and currently only 100,000 accounts open.

If we had guessed back in 2015, we would have expected over one million accounts open by December 2021 and $10 billion under investment. Is it a challenge of lack of education and awareness? Is the problem that bank customers can’t visit their neighborhood branch and open an account? Is it a lack of coordinated efforts between federal agencies and state government to design and implement a cohesive coordinated marketing campaign? Is it the Medicaid payback provision, which goes into effect when an ABLE account owner dies and has funds left in their account? Is it all of the above and something else such as expanding who is eligible to open an account with onset of disability expanded from age 26 to 46? Or is it the lack of data that would help families make informed decisions that helps them compare one state ABLE program with the next?

There are no simple answers. We urge Congress, federal agencies, the financial service sector, disability-focused nonprofits and individuals with disabilities and their families to come together to reassess the current system and develop new strategies, policies and processes that are responsive to the needs and preferences of the disability community. Together, we can be bold, creative and determined to expand the reach and realize the promise and potential of ABLE accounts to change peoples’ lives and grow the number of ABLE accounts from thousands to millions.

Happy Birthday, current and future ABLE account owners! Dream big about the possibilities of financial health and a better quality of life.