The number of disabled people who have opened specialized savings accounts has already skyrocketed over the past two years, according to the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office. And participation may further increase, thanks to a bill signed into law this week.
In 2019, fewer than 100 Nevadans had opened an ABLE account, which is a tax-free savings account that allows people with disabilities to save money without fear of losing eligibility for public benefits programs like Social Security and Medicaid.
Today, approximately 1,200 Nevadans have ABLE accounts.
The significant increase in participation is the result of a concentrated community outreach effort by the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office, which was given complete authority over the ABLE program in 2019. Prior to that year, the program’s responsibilities were splintered between state departments, leading to administrative confusion and low participation.
Deputy State Treasurer Erik Jimenez says ABLE accounts are a necessary financial tool for people with disabilities who rely on social programs like Social Security, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid. Such safety net programs typically require people to have less than $2,000 in cash savings or retirement funds.
“We want people employed and saving but if they don’t have the right financial tools, you might do more harm than good,” he said.
Jimenez says the average ABLE account holds $6,000. Savers can use their money for qualified expenses, a list of which has been set at the federal level and includes both basic living expenses (like food and housing) and needs specific to living with a disability (like assistive technology and health care).
“It legitimately changes their lives,” he added.
The Treasurer’s Office is planning to further develop the ABLE program by becoming the first state in the country to offer a cash incentive for opening an account. Democratic Treasurer Zach Conine’s office this legislative session sponsored a bill asking lawmakers to grant his office permission to set up a program to solicit private donations and grants that can be used as seed funding for new ABLE accounts.
Assembly Bill 62 quietly passed both legislative chambers with unanimous bipartisan support. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill into law Wednesday.
“One of the biggest barriers we’ve seen is, because they are living in poverty, they don’t have the capital to start saving,” said Jimenez.
Seed funding for savings accounts already exists in other state-facilitated programs. Nevada’s College Kick Start program, which is also overseen by the State Treasurer’s Office, gives what is considered a $50 scholarship savings account to every kindergartener in the hopes of encouraging families to begin saving for college or career training.
“We know once they have it open, they start saving,” added Jimenez.
Jimenez believes if the state can raise $100,000 or $200,000 in donations to help establish ABLE accounts, it would have an enormous impact, particularly for children with disabilities who might be able to avoid falling into a “donut hole of poverty” once they become adults.
No other state has a program in place to offer seed funding for ABLE accounts. But Jimenez says administrators in several states — among them California, Oregon and Ohio — are watching Nevada with hopes they might replicate a successful program. The Nevada State Treasurer’s Office is also working with the congressional delegation and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who heads the Senate Aging Committee, about the possibility of federal support in the future.
“We’re on the bottom of every bad list,” said Jimenez of Nevada. “It’s nice to be able to lead.”