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Are You Asking the Right Questions?

“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” These words by Franklin D. Roosevelt hang in my office as a guiding light for the work I contribute to meet National Disability Institute’s (NDI) mission and the mission of the LEAD Center, and as a reminder that employment is not the end goal. It’s just the beginning.

Within the disability community, we often speak of employment as a key component of the social fabric of our society, and as an important, sometimes primary way that we define ourselves as individuals. And I agree. Wholeheartedly. But we can find social opportunities and self-identification elsewhere. Money, however, is a bit trickier to find. Faced with a staggering unemployment rate of 34.5 percent vs. 76.8 percent for people without disabilities, just getting a job – any job – can feel like an uphill battle for people with disabilities. It can be easy to overlook a few key questions that we should all ask when we are job hunting, before accepting a job, and once hired.

1.How much do I need to earn?

I know, I know, we spend a lot of time in the disability community asking a much different question, “How much can I earn before I lose my benefits?” Let’s hold that question and start with how much you need. How much money one needs to earn should consider current expenses, unpaid debts, and financial goals. This number may need to be tweaked depending on the potential loss of a benefit but it’s important we start with a positive picture of the financial life we want for ourselves. Not sure how much you need or what your financial goals are? Check out one of NDI’s free e-learning courses – Creating a Zero-Balance Spending Plan or Steps to Achieving My American Dream - to get started.

2.How much will it cost me to go to work?

We all pay to go to work. Transportation, work clothes, childcare expenses and other costs for work can add up. You want to know this amount for two reasons: 1) a job that seems like a great fit may cost too much to be the right opportunity; and 2) if you receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security income (SSI), costs that are related to your disability can be deducted from your gross earnings as Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE's). You can learn more about IRWE’s on Social Security’s website or by connecting with a benefits planner (discussed below).

3.What’s on my credit report?

You may be asking yourself, “What on earth does a person’s credit report have to do with work?” Well, sometimes, a lot. A 2012 study showed that close to 50 percent of employers pull credit reports for some job positions (an estimated 12 percent pull for all employees) to get a better understanding of the job candidate’s behaviors. Be sure to check your free credit report for errors and to see what’s there so you can be prepared to explain anything, if needed. Take the time to dispute errors in your credit report. If you do not receive a job offer based on your credit report (or a background check), know and exercise your rights.

4.How much will I gain in employer-provided benefits?

Often overlooked… sometimes feared… employer-provided benefits can act as an immediate raise, supplement or replace your current healthcare, and/or provide a safety net for you and your loved ones – but only if you enroll. Fear of loss of benefits, concern over immediate costs, even misunderstandings about how they work, can create barriers to accepting these benefits. Learn the basics about employer-provided benefits and ask to meet with the designated benefits manager at your new job before you pass on any benefits they offer.

5.How will these earnings impact my public benefits (SSDI, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)?

You may be wondering why I did not position this question as the top priority. It’s simple…. work may provide an opportunity to let go of some or all of your public benefits. Working with a benefits planner – someone who is knowledgeable about Social Security’s work rules and work incentives, and other public benefits – is the first step. Social Security funded Work Incentive Planning and Assistance projects provide free benefits planning to Social Security (SSSDI and SSI) beneficiaries. Another great way to engage with a benefits planner is to consider assigning your Ticket to Work. You can learn more about Ticket to Work and assigning your Ticket through NDI’s American Dream Employment Network. In a growing number of states, Medicaid Buy-In programs offer even more room to earn and save money; allowing up to $59,892 in earnings and $20,000 in resources in one state. And, the new ABLE accounts will remove barriers to saving, allowing eligible individuals to save up to $14,000 per year until the current limit of $275,000 - $400,000 (depending on your state of residence) and $100,000 for SSI recipients. Now that’s something to strive toward!

During National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and every month after, I hope that the words of FDR will ring in our minds and drive us, all of us, to set our goals beyond employment and benefit preservation to economic security, economic mobility and true individual freedom.


Elizabeth Jennings is the Director of Training and Technical Assistance for National Disability Institute in Washington, D.C. Jennings is a national trainer on Social Security benefits, asset development strategies for persons with disabilities (including favorable tax provisions and the Earned Income Tax Credit, financial education, and protected savings opportunities), and the building of expanded relationships between the disability and asset building communities. Her varied experience includes spearheading asset development initiatives in Florida and New York to increase access to VITA, EITC and asset building opportunities for individuals with disabilities, creating collaborative agreements, building partnerships, executing grant allocations, providing technical assistance on federal disability policy and assisting individuals in job development and understanding the effect of work on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits.

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