28 December 2009

Disability and Poverty: It's Time to Connect the Dots

Much of the research on poverty in this country does not focus on the connection between poverty and disability. Researchers who do, have some startling statistics to contribute. A recent webcast by Mathematica Policy Research and the Center for Studying Disability Policy highlighted the impact of disability on poverty.

The poverty threshold based on the 2008 Census was $11,201 for someone under the age of 65 and $22,025 for a family of four. Using those definitions of poverty,
  • 25% of individuals with disabilities are poor compared to only 10% of the general population.
  • Of all working-age adults living in poverty, 47% have a disability. That’s almost half.
Poverty is usually a short-term phenomenon in the general public, but people who remain in poverty long-term frequently have disabilities.

  • For individuals reporting long term poverty, 65% have a disability.
In point of fact, the poverty threshold is not a very reliable indicator of the number of people who are poor. The poverty threshold, which is based on indicators from the 1960s, is increasingly under attack as being out-of-date and significantly underestimating poverty. Using “hardship indicators” instead of the poverty threshold, many others would be considered poor. Some of these hardship indicators are the inability to:

  • meet expenses
  • pay rent or mortgage
  • pay utility bills
  • get needed medical health care
  • get needed dental care
  • afford enough food
Just one of these indicators can severely affect an individual’s quality of life. Many people who experience multiple hardships such as these are not counted in the ranks of the poor. In addition, having a disability often means having significant disability-related expenses; thus, people with disabilities often need a higher income to avoid hardship indicators than the general public.

In summarizing the data presented on the webcast, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • The poverty rate for people with disabilities is very high, especially among those with long term disabilities.
  • A very large share of those living in poverty in any year have disabilities and that share is even larger when long term disability is considered.
  • People with disabilities living in poverty are much more likely than others in poverty to experience material hardship.
  • If the official poverty standard reflected the effect of disability on the likelihood of material hardship, people with disabilities would constitute an even larger share of those living in poverty.
Work as Anti-Poverty Policy
Increasingly, work is being identified the best anti-poverty program. Many people with disabilities do not work due to fears about retaining their SSI or SSDI and Medicaid/Medicare health coverage. However, almost all of these individuals live in poverty and/or experience material hardships. The good news is that work incentives to promote integrating people with disabilities into the workforce are available to help people with disabilities increase their income and retain disability-related benefits. The bad news is that they are an under-utilized resource and can be complex to understand. Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) is one work incentive that helps people to retain their health care benefits even when they work.

Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) allows people with disabilities who work to receive Medical Assistance at a lower cost. Minnesotans with disabilities are eligible for MA-EPD if they:

  • are employed with earnings from a job of over $65 per month; and
  • have been determined to have a disability by either the Social Security Administration or the State Medical Review Team; and
  • are ages 16 through 64; and
  • have no more than $20,000 in assets, not counting retirement accounts, medical expense accounts, a spouse’s assets, or other assets excluded by MA (such as a home, a vehicle and household goods); and
  • pay a monthly premium and other cost sharing, if required.
This information comes from a fact sheet on MA-EPD by the Minnesota Work Incentives Connection which also provides more detail on the program. A link to the fact sheet is provided in the references below. While many people with disabilities believe that working will cause them to lose key benefits that is not always the case. There are certain programs that allow them keep benefits while still working and increasing their income. The Minnesota Work Incentives Connection can assist individuals and organizations in analyzing the impact of employment on benefits.

The Disability Linkage Line (DLL) is an additional resource that provides information about work incentives and a variety of support, options, and resources regarding disabilities.  The free service is available during regular business hours. To contact the DLL see the references below.

If we want to address poverty in this country, we will have to start addressing the connection between disability and poverty and between disability and employment. To take a significant bite out of the number of Americans who are poor, we will need to move people with disabilities out of poverty and into employment with livable wages.


Fremstad, S., Livermore, G., & Loprest, P. Disability and Poverty: What Is the Connection and What Should We Do About It? [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.disabilitypolicyresearch.org/forums/

Fact Sheet on MA-EPD from the MN Work Incentives Connection http://www.mnworkincentives.com/site/files/MA-EPD%20Flyer.pdf

To contact the Disability Linkage Line, call 1-866-333-2466 or go to http://www.semcil.org/dll.html

Minnesota Department of Human Services. Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities Program Evaluation [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://cwd.aphsa.org/statetostate/docs/2005_Program_Evaluation_MN.pdf


  1. Thank you for highlighting the devastating problem of poverty and disability. Of the two most promising solutions, you have clearly highlighted one: employment, and touched on the other: affordable, comprensive health coverage, like MA-EPD. With state and national efforts to reform health care, I would suggest that the need for affordable coverage with the necessary comprehensive benefits for persons with disabilities deserves more direct attention. Persons with disabilities aren't all in poverty due to lack of a job, many are required to impoverish themselves to get the health and longterm services they need. It is up to those who understand the health care impoverishment connection to explain and assure that every health care affordability discussion include this issue---the impoverishment required to get health coverage if you have a disability and need comprehensive services, including supports such as personal care assistance. Private health plans simply do not provide the necessary coverage for persons with disabilities. This serious issue is not well understood by the public or even state and federal policy makers. Most assume people with disabilities are poor because they can't work, but lack of employment is definitely not the whole story. Employment and affordable, comprehensive health coverage together constitute a ladder out of poverty for many with disabilities.
    Thanks for this very important information and website.

  2. AnonymousMay 12, 2010

    If are government is not aware if these facts they should take a look at all the cuts recently made evidently they do not have family that fit in this category, i find it a shame that people have to live in these conditions and our government is still getting raises for do a substandard job!