By Kate Anderson
In March 2021, Congress and President Biden passed the historic American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to provide economic relief from the effects of the pandemic and ongoing recession. Many Americans recall this $1.9 trillion bill as the source of their last stimulus check. Fortunately, the ARPA has also provided many other resources and funds, that some states have used to bolster employment for people with disabilities.
Disabled job-seekers encounter many barriers when searching for gainful, satisfying work, whether their disabilities are apparent or non-apparent. Hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities earn subminimum wage for their work, on average earning just $3.34 per hour. Disability rights activists are working to end this practice which exploits disabled workers and is often segregated. For those who secure better-paying jobs, it can be difficult to ensure an inclusive and accommodating work environment. Yet another challenge is the lack of understanding on how work impacts benefits. WID’s Disability Benefits 101 tool is a resource to empower people to learn how work and benefits go together so they can make an informed choice.
Several states have decided to use ARPA funds to help disabled people as they seek employment. This demographic was already prone to a higher unemployment rate prior to the pandemic, and was hit especially hard by Covid-19’s effects on the labor market. In our recent blog post “How to Create An Inclusive Work Environment For People with Disabilities,” we reported that “The United Nations reports that in developing countries 80% to 90% of disabled people of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries the figure is between 50% and 70%.” Thanks to ARPA funding, states have bolstered programs and resources to tackle this issue. Early numbers indicate that these programs might already be successful in their aim of employment relief.
Disability Benefits 101 in Arizona
WID’s online resource Disability Benefits 101 (DB101) aids disabled employees and job seekers. It helps people with disabilities and service providers make informed decisions as they search for work and navigate the complex world of disability benefits, which varies from state to state. The digital platform currently provides information, estimators, and expert help for 11 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, and Ohio.
Arizona recently used ARPA funding to expand its DB101 platform in order to accelerate opportunities for individuals with disabilities and to ensure that the state’s economic and job market recovery keeps pace with national trends.
Kristen Mackay is the Arizona Vocational Rehabilitation Program Administrator, and a champion of the DB101 platform, which her state program has used since 2010. She describes DB101 as an “intuitive, easy-to-use online tool with current news, resources, and real-time estimators to help people understand the impacts of employment wages on both state and federal benefits.”
Adam Robson is the Employment Administrator for Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the state’s Medicaid program, and the agency that directed the federal funding to DB101. Like Mackay, he welcomes this resource with enthusiasm: “For people wanting to learn about the connections between working income and public benefits, DB101 is the go-to tool, the one-stop website, for everything you could possibly want to know.”
Robson continues, “[T]his strong belief in DB101 has led Arizona into becoming the first, and so far only, state to incorporate DB101 into state Medicaid policy by including it as one of the four main employment-related competencies for staff providing behavioral health services.”
How Other States Are Using ARPA Funds
The ARPA includes the most significant federal support for services to the disability community in over ten years. Its funding has supported new initiatives and existing programs in states, which are granted flexibility in their spending through State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SFRF). DB101’s added funding in Arizona is just one example of the allocation of ARPA funds to bolster employment for people with disabilities.
Some states have allocated funds to help people with disabilities meet basic needs. Maine has granted $1 million to underserved populations, including the disabled population, to find employment and achieve other goals. Nevada has invested an impressive $5 million to people with disabilities under the age of 18, for help with expenses including housing, employment, and health care.
Several states have used ARPA funds to incentivize private employers who want to diversify their workforce. Minnesota set aside $960,000 to support disability-owned businesses, and Tennessee used this federal funding to clear a waitlist for its CHOICES program, which focuses on employment options for people with disabilities.
Maine also provided funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in its state government. This $1.5 million investment can bolster the hiring of disabled workers in the public sector, and provide technical assistance and other resources.
Support for Home and Community-Based Services
The pandemic has had a far-reaching impact on the economy, especially for those living with a disability. Not only has it taken away jobs and sources of income for so many, it has also set up new barriers and challenges for individuals who require hands-on assistance and direct services for daily living. The ARPA was enacted to provide relief for the economic damages sparked by COVID-19, and also to invest in resources like the Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS). HCBS programs address many basic health and housing needs, increase access to behavioral health support, and can also provide community services that boost employment for disabled people. Additionally, HCBS can keep people with disabilities from being forced to live in congregate care facilities, like nursing and assisted living facilities, which have been hotbeds of COVID-19 infections since the beginning of the pandemic. These services are essential, not just for reducing COVID-19 infections, but for upholding the civil rights of disabled people.
Hope for the Future
Challenges with finding and maintaining meaningful work have long existed for disabled people. These long-standing barriers have not gone away, and the pandemic has created new ones. However, there is hope that the programs and services paid for by the ARPA can continue to support future innovations to address these inequalities. The past few years have revealed countless feasible ways to bolster employment for people with disabilities. The Act was passed over a year ago, but states are still continuing to make use of the funds, which they’re permitted to spend through 2024. It may take several more years to fully evaluate and learn from these new and expanded initiatives, but it’s clear that ARPA funding has already spurred significant progress in helping people with disabilities find sustainable employment and participate in their communities.
Kate Anderson is a Freelance Writer for WID.