Oregon ABLE Program Enrolls More than 1,000 People with Disabilities

Modeled on the popular 529 college savings accounts, the program allows people with disabilities and their families to save money and receive a debit card without losing their benefits.

The Oregon ABLE savings program for people with disabilities opened accounts for more than 1,000 people, who collectively saved $3.4 million, taking advantage of changes to federal rules that allow people to save without losing their benefits.

The Oregon Treasury created two programs -- the Oregon ABLE Savings Program and the ABLE for ALL nationwide program, allowing people from out-of-state to open account if they like Oregon’s investment portfolio.

The lion’s share of people who have opened accounts are Oregonians -- about 850, who have socked away about $2.86 million.

"ABLE is making a real difference in hundreds of lives throughout the state. It’s helping a Milwaukie teen save for her first apartment and a Bend man replace his failing wheelchair,” said state Treasurer Tobias Read, who sits on the Oregon 529 Savings Board. “I am proud that Oregon has been a national leader in this arena. We will continue to make it easier for people to save and invest in their future and the futures of their loved ones.”

The program mirrors the popular 529 college savings plan, which allows middle-class families to stow away money tax-free for the cost of their children’s higher education. People with ABLE accounts have fewer restrictions on the accounts -- the money can be used for basically anything that will help them live a fuller life, and account holders are given a debit card to access the money on a daily basis.

The program is supported by fees, and savings plan spokeswoman Kaellen Hessel said that the more successful the state is at getting more people to open accounts, the lower the fees will be.

For years, disabled people have not been allowed to have more than $2,000 in assets in order to receive any support from the federal government, including Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. These restraints have artificially impoverished people, making it impossible for them to buy a vehicle or pay for a security deposit on an apartment so that they can maintain access to social services that they would never be able to afford without government help.

The ABLE program, housed in the Oregon Treasury, provides a legal savings account for these individuals, allowing them or their families to contribute up to $15,000 a year, up to a total of $100,000, without losing Supplemental Security Income. The accounts can hold $310,000 total.

Portland resident Steve Holland said he and his wife, Angela Jarvis-Holland, had pitched in about $3,000 for their son, Daniel, to help him bridge toward a more independent life. With their older son, Quinn, building a savings account was never a problem, and they want both their sons to have a good start at adult life.

“It’s really important that I feel both my sons are supported,” said Jarvis-Holland, the executive director of the Northwest Down Syndrome Association, who helped lobby Congress to pass the federal ABLE Act. Sen. Ron Wyden was one of its chief supporters.

Daniel, who has Down syndrome, is a senior at Benson High School and is exploring a special program at Portland State University. He will likely stay at home after he finishes high school, but would eventually like to move into student housing. The leap from his parents’ nest would be tough without his ABLE account. He receives Supplemental Security Income, but it’s barely enough to cover his basic needs. “I want to have some choice,” said Daniel.

“[The ABLE account] is really teaching financial responsibility,” said Steve Holland. “He has a debit card now and he’s working on a budget.”

Daniel’s father said the ultimate goal is for him to get a career and a line of work that will allow him to be self-sufficient without his parents plugging money into the account. They just want him to have a path to independence. “This will give him a really good start at life.”

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.

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