Data Show Eliminating Asset Limits Works

Building blocksThere are many different types of poverty, but the Asset Opportunity Unit at the Shriver Center focuses on asset poverty. Asset poverty means having insufficient funds to meet one’s needs for three months if income were to disappear for those three months. Focusing on asset poverty is important because assets are the building blocks for economic mobility and financial stability. While income poverty looks at whether people have enough to get by, asset poverty looks at whether people have enough to get ahead.

One way to measure the asset poverty level of a family of four, for example, is to multiply the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) by three months. Based on this calculation, an Illinois family of four would need $5,762.50 in savings to live for three months if they had no other source of income. Putting aside whether the current FPL is a sufficient measure of poverty, the question is whether most families, let alone low-income families, have even this much set aside.

For low-income families receiving public benefits the answer is likely no. This is because asset limits in public benefit programs prevent such families from building a level of resources necessary for future needs. For instance, in Illinois, the asset limit for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) is $2,000. Thus, if a family has more than $2,000 in savings, they are not eligible for TANF. In other words, Illinois’s TANF asset limit is only about one third of what a family would need to stay above the asset poverty level. Given such archaic limits, it is no wonder that families remain in poverty and reliant on public benefit programs.  

For years, advocates have argued that states should either eliminate their public programs’ asset limits entirely or, at a minimum, increase them to limits more reflective of today’s economic realities. As advocates correctly note, asset limits are a relic of entitlement program policies that no longer exist. Cash welfare programs, for example, now focus on quickly moving individuals and families to self-sufficiency, rather than allowing them to receive benefits indefinitely. Since personal savings and assets are precisely the kinds of resources that allow people to move off public benefit programs, continuing to utilize asset limits runs counter to this policy.

Nevertheless, states have been reluctant to reform asset limits. Although most states have eliminated asset limits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and some states have eliminated them in Medicaid, the majority of states still have them in TANF. Most often, fear about increased numbers of people who have significant assets enrolling in public benefit programs is given as a reason for not changing such limits. Yet, a recent study from the New America Foundation shows that in states where asset limits have been eliminated no such increases have occurred. Moreover, the study shows that eliminating asset limits actually reduces administrative costs and time per cases, which allows caseworkers to take on more cases, without increasing workload or administrative costs.

The report, which analyzed the results of interviews and surveys of public benefit administrators in eight states, confirmed previous research that found that most applicants to SNAP and TANF have very few assets anyway and that eliminating asset tests would not significantly increase eligibility. In fact, currently in the majority of states studied very few families were denied program participation due to excess assets anyway. In Idaho, only 2.2% of SNAP application denials were due to excess assets. Thus, an overwhelming increase in cases is unlikely. This is true despite widespread belief that eliminating asset tests will allow wealthy individuals to “game” the system. 

The report also noted that eliminating asset limits reduces administrative costs, and the fiscal benefits to the state can outweigh any costs incurred. In Iowa, for instance, direct state costs for eliminating asset limits in its SNAP program were estimated at $702,202, but the overall benefit to the state would be $12.3 million from additional SNAP benefits and increased state employment. Oklahoma determined that eliminating the Medicaid asset limit in 1997 saved approximately $1 million in administrative costs.

The study provides powerful data that advocates can use to convince policy makers that their perceptions about the benefits of asset limits are incorrect. Additionally, these data support advocates’ assertions that, despite what states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan apparently believed when they reinstated asset limits in their public benefit programs, eliminating asset limits is not only necessary for the economic stability of low-income families, but also cost effective for. As the economy begins to improve, now is not the time for states to regress in important policy reforms that will help families become financially self-sufficient.

This blog post was coauthored by Alex Hoffman. 


ABLE Act Helps Individuals with Disabilities Save

Disabled ManThe “Achieving a Better Life Experience Act” or the ABLE Act, which was first introduced in the Congress in 2009 as H.R. 1205, was reintroduced recently.

H.R. 3423 was introduced on November 15th by Andrew Crenshaw (R-FL) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and in the Senate as S.1872 by Robert Casey (D-PA) and Richard Burr (R-NC). The bill, which has bipartisan support, would amend Section 529 of the tax code to provide tax-free savings accounts for individuals with disabilities.

The 2011 version of the ABLE Act, though similar to the original version, differs slightly. Unlike the original bill, which had a maximum allowable cap of $500,000 in savings, under the 2011 version the accounts would be governed by the same regulations as 529 college savings accounts, in which amount limits are determined on a state-by-state basis. Another change is that, if an individual has an ABLE account, he or she will continue to receive Medicaid benefits, however, if the individual's ABLE account balance exceeds $100,000, his or her Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, if any, will be suspended until the balance goes below $100,000 at which point SSI benefits will be reactivated without a need to reapply.

Funds in ABLE accounts can be used for “qualified disability expenses.” These include transportation, employment support, health prevention and wellness, assistive technology and personal support, miscellaneous expenses as well as housing and education. Individuals eligible to open an ABLE account are those who are receiving SSI, disability benefits, or who have been determined to have a psychological or mental impairment which results in severe functional limitations, including blindness, for a continuous, 12-month period.

The Arc, a disability advocacy group, joined the sponsors of the bill along with other advocates at a press conference on Capitol Hill on November 15th as the bill was introduced.  As Peter V. Berns, Arc’s CEO explained:

The ABLE Act is about giving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to achieve their dreams. Families are looking for ways to finance things like an apartment, or a ride to work, or additional educational opportunities after high school that don’t jeopardize other necessary services provided by federal programs. This bill creates a tool for families that could lead to a more independent and fulfilling life.

To learn more about the ABLE Act and to compare both versions of the bill, please refer to this chart.


Racial Wealth Gap Is Wide and Growing

Wealth and assets are the building blocks of economic stability and mobility. Higher levels of wealth also benefit society as a whole. Unfortunately, wealth inequality in the United States is not only wide but growing — the wealthiest tenth of American households possess almost three-quarters of the country’s total net worth. The racial wealth gap is even worse. In less than a generation (from 1984 to 2007), the racial wealth gap has more than quadrupled, mostly as a result of rising white wealth. In terms of household net worth, for every dollar owned by a white household Latinos own twelve cents and African-American families own only ten cents.   In fact, the median net wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing this data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that prevailed among these groups for the prior to the Great Recession.

Early evidence is that the great recession has already significantly increased the racial wealth gap because of catastrophic losses in wealth amongst minorities. A recent report by the Pew Research Center estimates that from 2005 to 2009 the racial wealth gap doubled – so that median white families currently have as much as 20 times the wealth of black families, and 18 times the wealth of Hispanic families. These racial wealth disparities will rise further as the after-effects of the Great Recession continue. Although the recession affected all U.S. households’ wealth, through unemployment, falling stock prices, and huge losses in home values, it affected minorities more. In fact, the foreclosure crisis has caused “the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history.”

In order to understand the persistence of this discrepancy, one needs to examine the country’s historical and current discriminatory practices and policies. Even when characteristics such as income, education, and other demographics are equal, minorities continue to have less wealth than similarly situated whites. Historically, legal, or de jure, discrimination, both by the government and by private actors, increased the racial wealth gap and created the opportunity for whites to build assets at the expense of minorities. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, other facially neutral policies of the U.S. government racialized wealth acquisition, including the government’s promotion of white land acquisition, home ownership, retirement, and education, without explicitly delineating opportunities along the lines of race. Today, although racial discrimination is no longer legal, de facto discrimination still exists in terms of government and social priorities, principles, social norms, and the actions of individuals. Housing discrimination, unequal educational systems, disparate treatment in the realm of criminal justice, and disparate employment opportunities all continue the current advantages that whites enjoy.

Two critical public policy strategies in reducing this gap is identifying and eradicating current discriminatory government policies, whether de jure or de facto, and assisting racial minorities in developing assets. As advocates in the asset building field have explained, “public policies have and continue to play a major role in creating and sustaining the racial wealth gap, and they must play a role in closing it.”

At the moment, however, the federal government is actually exacerbating the racial wealth gap.  Instead of subsidizing wealth creation mostly for the wealthy, the federal government must switch to supporting asset-building strategies for those who need it most. In 2009, the United States spent nearly $400 billion on asset building policies. These subsidies, however, overwhelmingly go to those who already have significant wealth. For example, those earning more than $160,000 received an average of $5,109 in tax breaks per taxpayer, while those earning less than $19,000 received an average of only $5 in tax credits in 2009. Shifting the government’s expenditures toward facilitating the asset-building of the poor and minorities would help alleviate the legacy of racial inequality and provide needed fiscal stimulus.

Multifaceted public policies and strategies to help individuals build their own assets are also needed. Specifically, we must identify strategies to (1) promote savings, (2) increase access to mainstream credit, and (3) improve and increase financial education. Only by acknowledging that the same social system that has, and continues, to foster the accumulation of private wealth for many whites while denying it to blacks and redirecting this focus will we, as a society, begin to decrease the wealth gap that has racially divided this country for centuries.

To read more about the causes of the racial wealth gap and asset building policy solutions to bridge this gap read the “Eliminating the Racial Wealth Gap: The Asset Perspective,” featured in the July-August 2011 issue of Clearinghouse Review.