A lot of progressive work has been done over the last several years to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace and in housing. Legislation like Employment First and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act support people with disabilities in finding meaningful employment, and numerous organizations across Pennsylvania provide critical resources to people with disabilities who want to make their own choices about housing. In some respects, we’re making big strides as a society in promoting the importance of inclusion and independence for people with disabilities. But there is something significant missing—financial education.
Comprehensive financial education goes beyond just learning about how to budget your money. It touches every aspect of your life, describing, for example: Employment provides more than just income—it also offers community and a source of pride; renting a home is not just a matter of knowing how much you can afford each month—it also takes into account how close you are to work, social opportunities, healthy groceries, and transportation; and credit is not just a score—good credit is an asset that opens doors to educational, work-related, and other opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
With only 16.4% of students in the U.S. required to take a personal finance course to complete high school, financial education is needed across the board, not just in the disability community. But among the disability community, the need is felt more acutely. Certain financial matters are more complicated when you have a disability, such as earning and saving without losing access to vital government benefits, or even simply storing internet banking passwords safely when you rely on attendant care to access those accounts. Susan Tachau, PATF CEO, and the primary driver behind our financial education book, Cents and Sensibility: A guide to money management, adds:
“The current tools are not addressing the needs of people with disabilities, who are often—but not always—outside the mainstream. Under- and unemployment rates are higher, and people with disabilities are not dreaming in high school about moving into their own apartments—it’s just not a reality for them.”
With a lack of comprehensive financial education, employment and housing remain out of reach despite supports available, and people with disabilities face yet another barrier to true independence.
Take Elysia for example. She participated in Money Club West, a 10-month financial education program hosted by ACHIEVA that we designed around Cents and Sensibility where members learn about financial education every month and contribute monthly to an IDA, in which each contribution is matched by PATF. When Elysia started Money Club, she worked at Walmart two days per week and received $140 every month in food stamps. She called out sick to work often, and she was spending a significant amount of money on things like delicious-smelling mini hand sanitizers from Bath and Body Works.
During Money Club, Kaylynn Petri, Money Club instructor and an ACHIEVA Supports Broker, said she emphasized saving money instead of making impulsive financial choices. She worked with the students on adding up all those little costs (such as money spent on hand sanitizers) to get an idea of where their money is really going, and then analyzing whether those purchases were truly needs or wants. They reviewed Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance, weighing how many hours they could work in a week without jeopardizing needed benefits.
By the last meeting of Money Club (ten months later), Elysia had made some significant changes. She increased her work week from two days to four or five days per week. She reduced the amount she was receiving in food stamps from $140 per month to $12 per month, and she was spending the money she was earning in her job on healthier groceries. She even had a little extra cash left over each week for fun stuff! Perhaps most impressive of all, Elysia made a major change in her career. Elysia felt she needed a change at work, but she recognized what the ramifications would be if she quit. Instead, she spoke with her managers and communicated that she wanted a different job at Walmart. Without any outside assistance, she advocated for herself to be moved to a different department (the craft department—her passion) and to be transferred to another Walmart, which meant a shorter bus ride every day. With the new changes, getting to work was more manageable for Elysia, she was able to increase her hours, and the work brought her greater satisfaction. Plus, because she stayed at Walmart, Elysia was able to continue getting a discount on yarn, which she uses for crocheting in her free time. Is it too big of a leap to say that because of Money Club, Elysia was able to weigh her options and problem solve, determine a solution that worked for her financially, and even build the confidence to advocate for herself without assistance?
We don’t think so. In our experience, true comprehensive financial education encompasses so much more than learning to crunch numbers. “Let me put it this way,” Kaylynn shared:
“When we started, none of the nine individuals and their mentors knew each other. On the first day of class, everyone was very shy and quiet. I started that first class as a sort of ‘getting to know you,’ community meeting. Within three or four classes I started hearing ‘Hey, it was fun hanging out!’ They were exchanging phone numbers.”
On top of that, each student had a mentor that attended class with them, and worked privately with the student outside of class. These mentors developed relationships with each other and were able to network. Pretty soon, when mentors were working with their students outside of class, they would coordinate with other teams to meet up out in the community. As Kaylynn put it, “We broke up the students’ normal routine. We enriched their lives.”
And at the completion of Money Club, they had a final task. Each student was challenged to apply what they had learned about saving, budgeting, wants and needs by using the money they saved in their IDAs to purchase the assistive technology of their choosing. Elysia chose the Apple HomePod. Another impulsive decision? We think not. See for yourself:
Independence and control over one’s own life are things we all strive for. And there are more supports in place than ever to assist people with disabilities in realizing those goals. With a foundation of a more comprehensive financial education, the sky is the limit on what is possible.