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Spring 2011  

*** LEGISLATIVE UPDATE ***

 

VITA Act of 2011 Re-introduced on April 14th 

 

After much anticipation, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown introduced the VITA Act of 2011 (S. 816) on April 14, 2011. The Act would authorize the Internal Revenue Service to continue the Community Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Matching Grant Program. Since 2008, the VITA grant program has allowed community nonprofit organizations to provide services to those who need it most. The VITA Act would authorize the program at $30 million/year for a total of five years.


The VITA Act of 2011 (S. 816) provides greater flexibility to VITA grantees to use funds to expand the services provided to taxpayers in the areas of asset development and financial education. The legislation will also ensure that VITA entities continue to receive technical assistance and training support to sustain and improve overall quality of their tax preparation services through the creation of the National Center to Promote Quality, Excellence and Evaluation in VITA.

The only changes to the bill were two technical modifications made to allow for a more flexible definition of "eligible entity" under the VITA community matching grant and the population the VITA grantees may serve (up to 250% of the poverty level). Additionally, a provision was added that encourages VITA sites to refer more difficult cases of taxpayers that owe back taxes to Low Income Tax Clinics (LITCs), which was a suggestion made by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olsen.

There are several disability-friendly provisions to the bill. First, the bill requires the IRS to ensure that all tax preparation and assistance materials published by the agency are accessible to taxpayers with disabilities. Second, the bill places greater emphasis on taxpayers with disabilities and taxpayers with English as a Second Language (ESL) as the primary target subpopulations for which the Community VITA Matching Grant Assistance funding should be prioritized. Finally, the legislation requires that a subcontractor with expertise in disability outreach be engaged by the National Center to Promote Quality, Excellence and Evaluation in VITA in order to ensure the provision of high-impact, cutting edge technical assistance to the VITA field in terms of how best to reach and assist taxpayers with disabilities.

S. 816 was referred to the Senate Committee on Finance. NDI and other national advocacy organizations are working hard to solidify the introduction of a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

WIA/Rehab Act Reauthorization Package Still Lingering in Senate - Introduction Expected in Early June


After two months of closed-door negotiations, the much-anticipated release of the Senate draft WIA/Rehab Act reauthorization package is expected within the next two weeks. The package has endured several delays as a result of continual disagreements about legislative proposals aimed at improving the transition outcomes of youth with the most significant disabilities. National organizations representing self-advocates and families have been strongly urging the Senate HELP Committee to ensure through the reauthorization package a significant reduction in the use of sheltered employment and subminimum wage practices. NDI joined sixteen other national organizations to send a letter to the Senate HELP Committee membership reaffirming its position that the legislation should ensure that all options are exhausted to get youth into integrated employment or post-secondary education. Senior officials from the Obama Administration have also weighed in to share similar concerns with the Committee staff.

Sources close to the negotiations confirmed that the Committee is striving for a June 8th introduction with a Committee mark-up scheduled possibly as soon as the week of June 20th.  

Several Legislative Proposals to Promote Asset Development Underway


Several legislative proposals from previous Congresses that are aimed at promoting asset development and economic advancement for low-inome individuals including workers with disabilities have been resurrected in recent weeks in preparation for reintroduction in the 112th Congress.  


Assets for Independence Improvement Act

 

The Stephanie Tubbs Jones Assets for Independence Improvement Act (H.R. 1623) will reauthorize and improve the Assets for Independence Act, the largest Federal grant program for individual development accounts (IDAs) and the primary source of funding for the IDA field.

Introduced Friday, April 15 by Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and 24 original cosponsors, H.R. 1623 would enable social service programs and partnerships to continue providing matched savings and financial education as a component of their assistance to low-income families. Since its inception, the Assets for Independence (AFI) program has successfully enabled tens of thousands of low-income Americans across the country towards purchasing their first home, starting a business, or pursuing post-secondary education or training.

The Assets for Independence Improvement Act includes the following modifications:

  • Lowers the non-federal matching funds requirement from 100% of federal funds to 50% of federal funds. State budget crises and the challenging economic environment have made it more difficult to raise the required local match; this bill will ease that burden.
  • Allows tribes and local governments to apply for AFI grants independently. Current law mandates that applicants partner with a nonprofit organization, which are not always present.
  • Aligns the program's eligibility guidelines with other programs to simplify the application process. Households would qualify if their income is either below 80% of Area Median Income or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Also, this change enables individuals in high-cost areas to participate.
  • Raises the maximum match amount that participating families can receive from $2,000 to $5,000 for single AFI participants and from $4,000 to $10,000 for married couples. This will ensure that AFI accounts keep pace with inflation and the rising costs of housing and education.

SSI Savers Act to be Reintroduced in early June

In addition to the AFI Improvement Act, Representatives Tsongas and Petri are planning to reintroduce legislation this week that seeks to modernize outdated asset limits in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for low-income elderly and disabled individuals. 

Current asset limits pose serious obstacles for low-income families trying to become self-sufficient. This is particularly true in the SSI program where, with few exceptions, individuals cannot hold more than $2,000 in total assets and couples no more than $3,000.  For example, SSI recipients can end up limited to only $2,000 to survive their entire retirement.  These limits haven't been adjusted in more than two decades (since January 1, 1989) even though inflation has reduced the value of the dollar by almost half since then.

The SSI Savers Act of 2011 increases asset limits from $2,000 (single) and $3,000 (married) to $5,000 and $7,500 respectively, and indexes those limits to inflation.  For recipients younger than 65, the bill excludes retirement accounts, education savings, and individual development accounts from counting against the limit.  For recipients 65 and older, it allows retirement accounts up to $50,000 (single) / $75,000 (married) to reduce SSI benefits accordingly instead of creating an immediate cut off.  An analysis of the legislation was recently completed by the Urban Institute. 

Legislative staff from the office of Representative Tsongas has indicated the legislation will be introduced shortly after the Memorial Day recess.  To check on the status of the bill's introduction, please refer to Congresswoman Tsongas's website at http://tsongas.house.gov.

 

ABLE Act still Pending Reintroduction; Disability Advocates Anxious for New Bill

 

After several months of continual negotiations on several technical elements of the legislation, Congressional staff has indicated there will be a synchronized introduction of the ABLE Act of 2011 by both House and Senate champions during the month of June.  Disability advocates involved in the discussions have been putting pressure on Congressional staff to wrap up the legislation and get it reintroduced so that it stands a chance of moving in at least one chamber in 2011. 

Negotiations have focused primarily around how to bring the costs of the bill down, as well as determining whether the definitions of eligibility need to be modified.  The strategy has been for Senate and House champions to work more closely together in this Congress in order to ensure an optimal chance of identical legislation being introduced in both chambers. 

In the 111th Congress, the bipartisan legislation (S.493/H.R. 1205) enjoyed 25 cosponsors in the Senate and 203 cosponsors in the House of Representatives.  Disability advocates are anxious to build even higher levels of bipartisan support and work to urge the key Committees of Jurisdiction to either include the ABLE Act as part of a larger legislative vehicle related to either savings or tax reform, or alternatively to move the legislation independently given the significant opportunities the bill would provide to 54 million Americans with disabilities to save for their future.

Congress begins to Scrutinize Refundable Tax Credits and Consumer Financial Protection Entities - Anxiety Arises Among Asset Development Community

NDI has been closely monitoring recent Congressional inquiries about two areas imperative to asset development for low income citizens generally and workers with disabilities specifically - refundable tax credits and consumer financial protections.  In the past week alone, the House of Representatives have held to Congressional hearings on these topics. 

On Tuesday, May 24th, the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing to evaluate the progress in the implementation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFBP), a pet initiative of the Obama Administration that was authorized as part of the Financial Services Modernization Act of 2010.  The CFPB, set to begin operation in July, hasn't issued any regulations yet, but its officials have already come under major scrutiny by Congressional leaders for their planning of policies on issues ranging from credit cards to mortgage rules.  Sparks flew as House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry (R-NC) and CFPB head Elizabeth Warren exchanged blows about her decisions thus far in implementing the agency's mission as authorized in the Financial Services Modernization Act.  

The following day, the House Ways & Means Committee held a hearing exploring concerns related to errors in the administration of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Such activities are resulting in tremendous anxiety over both disability and asset development policy advocates who understand the tremendous impact that both refundable tax credits and strong consumer financial protections have on citizens with disabilities who are striving to work and build savings for their futures.  

 

 

**REGULATORY UPDATE**

 

National Council on Disability Calls for the Engagement of Citizens with Disabilities in Current National Dialogue around Entitlement Reform and Federal Spending 

 

The National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress and other federal agencies about policies affecting the lives of people with disabilities, held a public Congressional Forum entitled, "Disability In The Budget: Why It Matters" on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at the Rayburn House Office Building. The purpose of the forum was to shed light on the tremendous impact that large budget issues related to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and social services have on the lives of millions of citizens with disabilities.

"People with disabilities pay taxes, go to college, work and rely on Medicaid to live in the community. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, neighbors and coworkers in every community across the nation, but to date real life concerns facing over 50 million Americans with disabilities have been largely absent from current budget debates," said Jonathan Young, Chairman of the National Council on Disability. The Congressional Forum was the first of its kind in NCD's thirty-year history, and sought to put disability in the forefront of the nation's debates around tax reform, entitlement reform, deficit reduction and targeted spending.

The forum was comprised of three distinct panels. The first included the two current Co-Chairs of the Bipartisan Congressional Disabilities Caucus, U.S Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R - WA, 5th District), and U.S. Representative James Langevin (D - RI, 2nd District).

"As Congress discusses critical topics such as job creation, health care, and education - Americans with disabilities should be a part of the conversation," said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Co-Chair of the bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, whose son, Cole, has Trisomy 21. "The ADA and disability policies and programs should be about fulfilling the abilities and ambitions of each and every American to the fullest extent possible. They should not be about creating and perpetuating dependence on the federal government."

Congressman James Langevin (D - RI, 2nd District), Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus and the first quadriplegic Member of Congress said, "I am fortunate to have access to critical supports and services to help me do my job. Unfortunately, if the unexamined costs of the proposed budget cuts are not addressed, there could be millions of Americans with disabilities who run the very real risk of being stuck inside when they could be learning in a classroom, working in a boardroom, or serving with me in Congress. We should not let the value of human capital be eclipsed in the rush to impose fiscal constraints."

The second panel included Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who spoke about the impact of projected cuts on food and nutrition assistance programs would have on low-income citizens with disabilities, who comprise over 40% of all U.S. citizens currently receiving support through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The third panel included a combination of policy experts and disability parent and self-advocates. Ed Lorenzen, Executive Director of the Moment of Truth Project for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, projected the implications on citizens with disabilities of several proposals currently being proposed in terms of budget cuts, deficit reduction and fiscal reform.

The timing of the NCD Congressional Forum was critical in highlighting the unprecedented unemployment rates, poverty levels, and system barriers being faced by America's citizens with disabilities. Congressional Forum was the launch event of a longer series of field hearings that the National Council on Disability is planning to conduct over the next several months in an effort to highlight the unique role that many of the nation's entitlement and social service programs have on citizens with disabilities, and the significant implications that several proposed program cuts and decreased spending will have on persons with disabilities. 


US Labor Department Announces about $20 Million to Fund State-run Programs Aimed at Improving Employment Outcomes for People with Disabilities 

The U.S. Department of Labor today announced the availability of approximately $20 million to fund programs that will improve education, training and employment opportunities for adults and youth with disabilities. A solicitation for grant applications was published in the May 31st edition of the Federal Register. The Disability Employment Initiative is a joint project of the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration and its Office of Disability Employment Policy. Programs to be funded will serve individuals who are unemployed, underemployed and/or receiving Social Security disability benefits. The goals of the project are to improve coordination and collaboration across multiple service delivery systems, build effective partnerships that leverage public and private resources to better serve people with disabilities and, ultimately, improve employment outcomes of people with disabilities.

"Workers with disabilities suffer from one of the lowest employment rates of any group in the American population, even in times of prosperity," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "It is vital that state and local agencies work together with private sector partners to improve these statistics. Through this second round of funding, we are expanding the Disability Employment Initiative to include programs in additional states."

Grantees under the Disability Employment Initiative are state workforce agencies. Nine - in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, New Jersey, New York and Virginia - received grants through a first round of funding awarded in September 2010 for a period of three years. This solicitation for applications represents a second round of funding; agencies in the remaining 41 states are eligible to apply. Recipient state workforce agencies will collaborate with workforce investment boards and local agencies. Awards will range from $1.5 to $6 million each to be spent over a three-year period. Cooperative agreements will be used to expand service delivery through the public workforce system to job seekers with disabilities. The programs will build upon the Labor Department's Disability Program Navigator initiative and other model service delivery strategies.

Training and employment services supported by these grants are intended to help reduce the unacceptably low employment rates experienced by people with disabilities. The complete solicitation for applications is available at http://www.doleta.gov/grants.

Bob Williams named Assistant Commissioner of SSA Office of Employment Support Programs - Hosts First Quarterly Stakeholder Meeting on May 6th 


SSA Commissioner Astrue recently named Bob Williams the Associate Commissioner for the SSA Office of Employment Support Programs (OESP). A long-term leader in the disability rights movement, Williams commented that, "As the Associate Commissioner for the Office of Employment Support Programs, one of my highest priorities is to assure that the real life concerns, ideas and experiences of Ticket holders and young people on benefits becomes the central driving force in everything we do to create better choices and futures for all Americans with significant disabilities who are currently employed or want to go to work". Williams has hit the ground running by establishing quarterly meetings/calls for OESP's leadership to engage with disability employment support advocates. The conversations will serve as a critical opportunity for disability policy stakeholders to provide direct feedback to OESP's leadership on recommendations for improving the various programs that OESP oversees. The first quarterly call was held on May 8th and included approximately 20 disability policy leaders from across the country who provided several recommendations related to transition and the Ticket to Work program.

WID-NCIL-Mathematica Summit on SSDI Reform 


Over 40 of the nation's top policy leaders in the area of Social Security and disability convened during a two day summit entitled, "Employment Summit in the Great Session", an intensive two-day discussion hosted through a strong collaboration among the World Institute on Disability (WID), Mathematica Policy Research (MPR) and the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL).

The summit was convened to reflect on the impending insolvency of the SSDI trust fund in 2017-2018 within the larger national debt issues, which has created a new sense of urgency to develop some short term and longer term strategies to reshape the front door into the SSDI program. Participants were briefed by the architects of several budget-balancing proposals floating on Capitol Hill which included an array of diverse policy options for reforming SSDI and SSI.

At times, the level of discussion was intense reflecting the knowledge, concerns and passion around various strategies aimed at significantly increasing the employment rates of individuals with disabilities in real jobs that "make work pay". A report will be available within the next thirty days, which will serve as a framework for continued conversations with Congressional policymakers and the Obama Administration as entitlement reform heats up in the fall.

ISSUE IN FOCUS: Medicaid Reform and Employment of Citizens with Disabilities 


Since 2010, the National Disability Institute has engaged in a national cross-disability policy dialogue to look at opportunities for incentivizing states to increase their focus via Medicaid funding on employment support for persons with disabilities so as to improve employment outcomes. With the impending conclusion of the Medicaid Infrastructure Grants (MIGs) at the end of 2011 and no additional funds to continue the program as currently designed, the likelihood of the MIGs continuing in their current form appears unlikely. However, given the current focus around Medicaid reform, the cross-disability dialogue that began in 2010 has now accelerated toward a development of a set of strategies for preserving the core objectives of the MIG and ensure that promising strategies evolving from the work of the MIGs be preserved.

 

As an effort to engage national disability policy stakeholders with state leaders responsible for implementing the MIGs over the past ten years, CMS invited key NDI's Executive Director Michael Morris and other leaders of the national cross-disability dialogue to lead a plenary session at the MIG Annual Summit on May 11-12th in Denver. Over 100 project leaders responsible for implementing state MIG programs attended the conference and participated in the session.

 

The plenary session provided an overview of the current federal dynamics surrounding the MIGs, disability employment outcomes and Medicaid reform. Additionally, the panelists unveiled a draft set of policy recommendations for the 112th Congress requesting feedback from the summit's participants in an effort to ensure a stronger collaboration in pushing for a continued federal commitment to systems change and improved employment outcomes of citizens with disabilities. In the coming weeks, a final version of the recommendations will be published on our website. Check our newsfeed periodically for the publication.

 

Panelists included: Michael Morris, National Disability Institute; Serena Lowe, Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination, Karen McCullough, Executive Director, National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities; and Allan Bergman, High Impact Mission-based Consulting and Training.

 

It is important to the National Disability Institute and its national partners to provide an open and transparent process for local and state stakeholders to provide feedback and engage in our work to ensure that any Medicaid reform proposals include changes that will establish stronger incentives and requirements for states to focus heavily on better employment outcomes for citizens with disabilities. As such, we encourage all of our partners to review the draft policy recommendations and provide feedback via email to Serena Lowe, Federal Government Relations Consultant to the National Disability Institute, at EWOLANERES@gmail.com.
As National Unemployment Rate Declines, Disability Unemployment Rate Continues to Soar

U.S. DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT PROFILE

STATISTIC

WITH DISABILITY

WITHOUT DISABILITY

April 2011

April 2010

April 2011

April 2010

% of population in the labor force

20.6%

22.2%

69.6%

70.2%

Unemployment rate

14.5%

15.2%

8.4%

9.3%

Employment-population ratio

17.7%

18.8%

63.7%

63.7%


As reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-6


Vol: 3 Issue: 3  
In This Issue
1. VITA Act of 2011 Re-introduced on April 14th
2. WIA/Rehab Act Reauthorization Package Still Lingering in Senate - Introduction Expected in Early June
3. Several Legislative Proposals to Promote Asset Development Underway
4.Congress begins to Scrutinize Refundable Tax Credits and Consumer Financial Protection Entities
5. National Council on Disability Calls for the Engagement of Citizens with Disabilities in Current National Dialogue Around Entitlement Reform and Federal Spending
6. US Labor Department Announces about $20 Million to Fund State-run Programs Aimed at Improving Employment Outcomes for People with Disabilities
7. Bob Williams named Assistant Commissioner of SSA Office of Employment Support Programs
8. WID-NCIL-Mathematica Summit on SSDI Reform
9. ISSUE IN FOCUS: Medicaid Reform and Employment of Citizens with Disabilities
10. As National Unemployment Rate Declines, Disability Unemployment Rate Continues to Soar


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