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The Baltimore Sun

November 4, 2009

Poverty and disability greatly correlated, new study shows

By Mike Irvin

Hard economic times are even harder when you have a disability. But poverty and disability don't have to be synonymous if we design our policies well.

A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (a Washington-based think tank) titled "Half in Ten" states that almost 50 percent of working-age adults who experience poverty for at least a 12-month period have one or more disabilities.

People with disabilities, the report says, account for a larger share of those experiencing poverty than people in all other minority, ethnic and racial groups combined and are even a larger group than single parents.

The extra costs associated with living with a disability such as purchasing expensive equipment like wheelchairs and catheters or obtaining specialized medical attention keep many disabled people and their families in poverty, the report notes.

The report also astutely observes that direct care workers who assist people with disabilities in their homes and communities are often themselves in poverty. The median income for the 3 million direct care workers in the United States is only $17,000 a year, the report says.

Fortunately, there are several steps we can take to ensure that disability doesn't spell poverty.

The first step is universal health care. The report stresses "the fundamental importance of health care reform, especially the provision of universal coverage, to anti-poverty efforts." The lack of good health insurance, the report says, "is one of the most significant drivers of income poverty and severe disadvantage." Another important step is for the United States to adopt "the kinds of paid-sick-day and paid-sick-leave policies that are already in place in all other similarly wealthy nations."

At least 40 percent of private sector workers in the United States have no paid sick days or leave, the report says.

Third, we should ease the ridiculously harsh restrictions on assets and earnings imposed on those receiving Social Security Disability Income. The current Social Security policy basically requires you to impoverish yourself before you can get disability aid from the government.

And, fourth, we should pay a decent wage to the health care providers who do such a superb job in tending to the needs of the disabled.

It's clear that the current economic hardship is being made much worse for many people than it needs to be due to the disregard politicians and policymakers have for the well-being of Americans with disabilities and those who work in providing them with assistance.

It's time for that to change.