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The American Rescue Plan: What It Means for People with Disabilities

How will this $1.9 trillion law help the 61 million Americans living with a disability?

Washington, D.C., March 12 – This week, Congress passed, and President Biden signed into law the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. This massive bill includes a range of policies and programs intended to get more Americans vaccinated, help working families, and lay the groundwork for a post-pandemic economic recovery. Critically, it also contains key proposals that will directly benefit millions of people with disabilities, including helping students with disabilities get back to the classroom and directly sending stimulus checks to many people left out of previous relief efforts.

Third time’s the charm

The American Rescue Plan is the third major stimulus package passed by Congress since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It follows the CARES Act passed at the end of March 2020 and the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed in early December 2020. Getting this massive bill over the finish line has been a critical focus for the Biden-Harris administration in their first days in office. With more than 28 million American having experienced a COVID-19 infection and 523,000 Americans dead due to this terrible pandemic, the hard work of implementation now begins.

Checks for individuals with and without disabilities – including adult dependents

Like the previous relief efforts, the American Rescue Plan will send stimulus checks directly to millions of people with and without disabilities. This new check will be a one-time cash payment of $1,400 sent from the government to all U.S. residents with adjusted gross income up to $75,000, or $150,000 for those who are married. For families under the income limit who have children, they will receive a check for each dependent child. These checks phase out for people earning more income, a key concession that helped ensure passage of the Plan.

For the first time, adult dependents 17 years of age and older are now eligible to receive these checks. This category includes high school students over age 17, college students claimed on their parents’ taxes, elderly adults claimed on their taxes by caregivers, and adults with disabilities. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates that this change in the law will ensure help for more than 28 million people previously denied economic relief in the previous stimulus bills. This represents a major victory for the advocacy community and will help many people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Likewise, because this stimulus check is considered a rebate, it will NOT be counted against the asset limits faced by people with disabilities if spent within 12 months of receipt. More details will be available on the IRS website as the check roll out in the weeks ahead.

If you have lost your job and need to file for Unemployment Insurance, please contact your state unemployment agency HERE.

To download a free copy of RespectAbility’s guide on how to find jobs during the pandemic, go HERE.

Money to get students safely back to school

In total, the American Rescue Plan invests more than $170 billion in America’s schools. This massive investment will be used to help schools maintain safety standards, increase sanitation to combat the spread of coronavirus, and update school facilities. These funds will also directly help address the collective trauma experienced by students who have had to grapple with virtual education and those experiencing learning losses over the past year. This plan also invests $40 billion to support public universities and colleges in every state. This includes new financial assistance for students and investments in student services, including mental health supports.

The education provisions of the American Rescue Plan also include unprecedented commitments to address education equity issues that impact the learning experiences and academic success for far too many students of color. According to the White House, this will take the form of a “COVID-19 Educational Equity Challenge Grant, which will support state, local and tribal governments in partnering with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders to advance equity.”

The American Rescue Plan specifically addresses the needs of students with disabilities throughout the K-12 education system. Out of the $2.5 billion dedicated to special education supports, $200 million are dedicated to meet the needs of preschoolers with disabilities and $250 million are designated to go to help infants and toddlers with disabilities. Credit for this provision of the Plan goes to Senators Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Each of them has long been advocates on disability issues and their leadership shined in a moment where it was sorely needed to make up for the educational shortfalls created by the pandemic.

This is welcome news for the increasingly diverse body of students with disabilities in America’s public school system. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, there are 6,561,998 students with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 21. Out of that number, 3,543,867 of them are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students with disabilities. In addition, 11.4 percent of students with disabilities nationwide (almost 720,000) also identify as English language learners.

The education sections of the Plan also recognize that even as students start going back to the classroom, digital learning has permanently altered the educational landscape. As such, $7 billion will be invested in programs to ensure internet access for all K-12 students and specifically highlights the needs of students with disabilities.

For resources specific to students with disabilities, please see RespectAbility’s newly updated Virtual Education & Students with Disabilities: Supporting Student Success in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond guide online HERE.

Unemployment insurance support for workers through Labor Day

Beyond the death toll of COVID-19, millions of Americans with and without disabilities have also been impacted by the economic crisis created by the pandemic. According to the latest statistics, more than 18 million out of work Americans are still collecting some form of unemployment benefit. For those currently receiving the bonus $300 federal unemployment checks, there is good news. Those payments have been extended through September 6, 2021. This creates breathing room for more Americans to get vaccinated and get back into the labor force. Likewise, state unemployment benefits have been extended to 53 weeks and people who collected unemployment payments last year can now exempt up to $10,200 on their 2020 taxes.

As the nation looks ahead and begins to implement plans to get millions of people with and without disabilities back to work, it is worth recognizing the massive challenge before us. The nation’s overall labor force participation rate dropped to 61.4 percent in March 2021. At the same time, the data shows that workers with disabilities have seen an even bigger drop in their labor force participation. According to an analysis by the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability (UNH-IOD), the labor force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities is currently only 33.4 percent. As the economy rebuilds and people get vaccinated, it will be absolutely critical to close the gap in labor-force participation rates for working-aged people with disabilities and their non-disabled peers.

Expanded tax credits to support children and families 

The child tax credit (CTC) is one of the unexpected and potentially transformative investments being made as a part of the American Rescue Plan. As documented by the Tax Policy Center, the CTC “provides a credit of up to $2,000 per child under age 17.” Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the tax credit is being increased to $3,600 per individual child under 6 years old and $3,000 all children until 18 years of age. This change could have a significantly positive impact on low-income families across the country. For more details on how this bill will help working families, the White House has begun rolling out new webpages with up-to-date information here.

What is missing from the law? 

The biggest, most controversial omission from the American Rescue Plan is the absence of the proposed increase of the Federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25. The loss of the Raise the Wage section of this bill happened due to judgement of the Senate Parliamentarian who ruled against Democrats in the Senate on procedural grounds. Democratic leadership has vowed to reintroduce the measure in the months ahead, but it remains to be seen if the Senate will act.

While this is a loss for the 17 million workers who would have directly benefited from the wage increase, it is also a loss for some disability advocates who have been working to end the practice of paying certain workers with disabilities below the minimum wage. The Raise the Wage bill would have included provisions to end the use of sub-minimum wages under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some feel that it would have helped more than 100,00 workers with disabilities begin the transition to competitive, integrated employment. Others feel more would be needed to support transition services. Currently, many disability advocates are gearing up to push Congress to adopt the bipartisan Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. This proposal would not only end subminimum wage forever, but it would also invest millions of dollars in community organizations as they work to help more people with disabilities earn an income and become independent, just like anyone else.

Would you like to know more?

This bill would not have happened were it not for the activism of dozens of advocacy organizations and hundreds of actively engaged citizens with and without disabilities. To contact your members of Congress, RespectAbility encourages people to use our Voter Voice tool to engage in digital advocacy, or read the latest headlines about the intersection of disability and politics on our blog here.

Lastly, if you would like to know more about how COVID-19 is impacting the disability community, we encourage you to review and make use of the following resources and materials:

Published inCongressCOVID-19DemocratsJoe BidenSenate

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