State uses federal relief to provide $5,000 grants to children with disabilities
Gov. Steve Sisolak and Nevada Treasurer Zach Conine announce a grant program for children with disabilities Monday. The grants were made possible by the state lifting restrictions under which people with disabilities who rely on Medicaid or Social Security were prevented from having more than $2,000 in cash savings or retirement funds. (Photo by: Michael Lyle)
Gov. Steve Sisolak said he has heard countless times how much people with disabilities, especially parents who had lost access to vital school services during the shutdown, struggled during the pandemic.
The state launched the Transforming Opportunities for Toddlers and Students (TOTS) program Monday to provide $5,000 grants to children with disabilities and ensure these families have resources to aid them in the economic recovery.
“We need to do everything we can to ensure our most vulnerable residents can recover as strongly as possible,” Sisolak said, speaking at the Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation. “Throughout the last 18 months, many parents and grandparents have stepped up to make sure their children with special needs had enough resources to do the best they could despite facing so many challenges along the way.”
The state allocated $5 million for the program and is using Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts, tax-advantaged savings accounts for those with disabilities, to distribute funds to families.
Nevada governments collectively received $6.7 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act, which includes $2.7 billion directly to the state general fund.
State officials, including Nevada State Treasurer Zach Conine, conducted a 75-day listening tour soliciting ideas for how federal funds could be used to fix systemic issues, such as the lack of affordable housing or child care assistance, and collected more than 2,500 proposals.
While lawmakers allocated millions of dollars from ARP during the legislative session for fixes to the state unemployment system and repay money borrowed from the unemployment trust fund, the TOTS program is the first grant program rolled out using ARP funds.
Also speaking Monday, Conine said the state’s disability community “was among the hardest hit throughout this pandemic.”
But historically, it’s a community left behind when it comes to aid and recovery.
“Families have been forced to make difficult choices like whether or not they can go back to work knowing a child at home couldn’t receive their normal care or physical therapy,” he said. “Struggling to pay for the cost of transportation or medical care, these are all things families had to face during the pandemic.”
One of the struggles Ramona Lowe faced during the shutdown caused by the pandemic was trying to pay for special equipment for virtual learning for her son Christian, 16, who is blind.
The equipment he relied on for virtual learning wasn’t compatible with the laptops the family owned, and Lowe had to “reach out to a social worker to help me financially to get Christian a tablet so that he was able to do remote learning.”
It costs $1,500 to purchase a special laptop, the needed software and extra training for Christian to learn how to use it.
“We have to comply with the world, but why can’t the world comply with Christian?” Lowe asked. “He can’t see and he has to adapt to our world. We need more resources and finances for them.”
Conine said the program is the first in the nation and “the largest investment in helping children with disabilities save for the future in this country in history.”
“For far too long, we’ve undervalued and under-resourced people with disabilities and the people who care for them,” he said. “Through restrictive caps on income and resource levels for programs like Medicaid and Social Security, we have forced people with disabilities to live in poverty through no fault of their own.”
People with disabilities who rely on resources like Medicaid or Social Security are prevented from having more than $2,000 in cash savings or retirement funds, a policy that contributes to keeping many in poverty.
The Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, which passed federally in 2014, became a workaround that allows states to create ABLE accounts to help people with disabilities save money while shielding them from losing eligibility for benefits.
“ABLE accounts are special savings accounts that allow people with disabilities to save up to $15,000 a year if they are not working and $27,000 a year if they are working,” Conine said.
However, the accounts remained largely underutilized in the state.
Lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 that transferred responsibility of the ABLE program to the treasurer’s office, helping increase the number of people participating from 60 to 1,500.
The TOTS program allows people to apply for $5,000 grants that can be used for expenses related to housing, education, tuition and “other disability-related expenses.”
Eligibility requirements for grants include being a Nevada resident under 18, having a qualified disability to open an ABLE account and being negatively impacted by Covid-19.
Once people apply, the treasurer’s office will contact families to help them set up an ABLE account, where the grant will then be dispersed.
The money allotted should be able to help 1,000 families, but Sisolak said “if there is more of a demand than that, I’ll work with the Legislature” about allocating more funds to the program.
Neither Sisolak nor Conine ruled out additional programs that will draw on ARP funds to provide direct relief or grants to people.
“I think there is a likelihood we will see all sorts of different programs,” Conine said. “One of the things we are trying to do is look at other states and see where they’ve been effective in the past. Nevada doesn’t historically do a lot of this work. We have a relatively small state government, which is why something like ABLE only had 60 members when we started doing the work two years ago. Now it’s 1,500. It’s not that the demand wasn’t there. There just aren’t that many people in the state to do this work. What we have to balance is how do we make sure all the programs can be administered correctly and well.”
Conine said the state is going through all the proposals submitted to determine what ideas might be pursued and funded.
Along with the $2.7 billion the state received in flexible funds, local governments received $1.04 billion total while specific areas, including housing, family assistance, food assistance, transportation and education, received individual allocations and separate guidelines for how to use funding.
“The first step is to go through and separate into buckets both by type and by whether they could be executed,” Conine explained. “There are some that are broad and generic. ‘You should spend more money on housing. You should spend more money on child care.’ Those are really useful, but we can’t execute on a specific thing.”
For the proposals that offer specific funding suggestions, the state still has to determine whether those ideas would be funded with the state’s $2.7 billion or through another funding allocation provided by ARP.
People can apply for the TOTS program at NevadaTreasurer.gov/TOTS.
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