State Treasurer John Chiang and other officials on Tuesday launched a new program aimed at helping people with disabilities save more money and take steps to become more financially independent.
Speaking at a packed event at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, Chiang said the program, which is called CalABLE, allows people with disabilities to save up to $15,000 per year and up to a total of $529,000 and still maintain benefits such as CalFresh and Medi-Cal.
He said people with disabilities who want to keep their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can save up to $15,000 a year and up to a total of $100,000.
Previously, people with disabilities risked losing their public benefits if they saved more than $2,000 per year.
"This is a long-overdue step to help individuals with disabilities have better life experiences and have more freedom and security," Chiang said.
The previous rules were "a limitation that could prevent people from building investment wealth," Chiang said.
Those rules prevented many individuals from achieving financial independence because higher savings threatened crucial federal benefits, often trapping them in a cycle of poverty, according to Chiang.
The new program "ends decades of unfair restraint and simply put, CalABLE is a game changer," he said.
ABLE is short for Achieving Better Life Experiences.
In order to qualify for a CalABLE account, a person must have a disability onset before the age of 26. They also must either be eligible to receive benefits such as SSA or Social Security Disability Insurance or have a disability certification that includes a diagnosis by a physician.
Miranda Kennedy, the national director of the ABLE National Resource Center, said the program was made possible when Congress passed the ABLE Act in 2014, which amended the Internal Revenue Service code to create tax-advantaged savings accounts for individuals with disabilities.
Kennedy said the tax-advantaged savings accounts can be used to cover qualified disability expenses such as education, housing and transportation.
In 2016, Ohio was the first state to create its own ABLE program and California is now the 41st state to do so, Kennedy said.
She said 30,000 people with disabilities nationwide have now opened ABLE accounts with a total of $140 million in assets and she expects those totals to "grow sky high" now that California has its own program.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who authored the legislation that created California's program, said the program "will improve the quality of life for its participants."
Hanna Eide of Novato, who has spinal muscular atrophy and is one of CalABLE's first official enrollees, said, "I will use the money I now can save to pay someone who can drive me to see my family members."
She said she also will use the money for work expenses for her web development business and to move into an apartment.
Eide said, "It will give me more independence with my money and more independence as a person.
State Treasurer-elect Fiona Ma also participated in the event Tuesday. Ma and Chiang are scheduled to participate in a similar kick-off event in Los Angeles on Wednesday.