Rebecca talks with Azza Altiraifi of CAP’s Disability Justice Initiative about how asset limits have become a “deadly poverty trap” in the age of Coronavirus. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

As COVID19 continues to trigger unprecedented economic turmoil, the pandemic has shined a long-overdue light on a little known policy called asset limits — which bar recipients of certain types of assistance from having even a few thousand dollars in the bank. Indeed, particularly given their disproportionate impact on people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, as Azza Altiraifi of the Disability Justice Initiative puts it in a new report, asset limits have come to function as a “deadly poverty trap.”

Researchers and anti-poverty advocates have been ringing the alarm bell for years on how counterproductive it is that we have functionally prohibited low-income people — including millions of people with disabilities — from saving for the future, let alone a rainy day. And now it’s raining. To take a look at asset limits in the age of coronavirus, Rebecca sat down (virtually) with Azza to talk about her report.

This episode’s guest:

  • Azza Altiraifi, research manager, Disability Justice Initiative

For more:


REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. Continuing our ongoing series of COVID-19 conversations, as COVID-19 continues to trigger unprecedented economic turmoil, the pandemic has shined a long-overdue light on a little known policy called asset limits. Asset limits bar recipients of certain types of assistance from having even a few thousand dollars or less in the bank. Indeed, particularly given their disproportionate impact on people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, as Azza Altiraifi of the Disability Justice Initiative puts it in a new report, asset limits have come to function as a “deadly poverty trap.” Researchers and anti-poverty advocates have been ringing the alarm bell for years on how counterproductive it is that we functionally prohibited low-income people, including millions of people with disabilities, from saving for the future, let alone a rainy day. And now it’s raining. So, to take a look at asset limits in the age of coronavirus, I sat down virtually, of course, with Azza to talk about her report. Let’s take a listen.

Azza, thanks so much for taking the time to come back on Off-Kilter.

AZZA ALTIRAIFI: Thanks so much for having me.

VALLAS: So, I was citing your report there, and I want to dig into why you describe asset limits as a deadly poverty trap, particularly in the middle of the current pandemic. But I’d love to sort of back up just a little bit and first start by having you explain what asset limits are and how they work and maybe to offer just a few examples of kind of how they function in practice for real people.

ALTIRAIFI: Absolutely. So, I think people generally have an understanding that many of our public assistance programs are means tested, which looks at whether or not a recipient has an income above a certain threshold. What a lot of people don’t realize is that they also often apply these asset tests, right? So, they look at how many resources potential beneficiaries have. And by resources, it can include a lot of things, right? It can include the money that you have in checking and savings accounts, the stocks and bonds that someone might have, and certain property. So, it kind of looks at both the actual income and cash that you have on hand and also the total resources that a beneficiary has, and determines based on that, whether or not someone is eligible. And the purported kind of stated intention of that is to make these benefits available only to people who most need it. But in reality, the way that they play out is it creates a really perverse and counterintuitive incentive structure for beneficiaries. It basically forces them to spend down what they have in their bank accounts so that they can keep their eligibility.

And to make matters even more complicated and difficult for people to navigate, the actual thresholds differ from program to program. And so, people are being forced to navigate these really bureaucratic systems, and in order to figure out whether or not they’re eligible, they’re navigating different requirements. So, one example, and one that is of particular importance for people with disabilities, is THE Supplemental Security Income program. And this provides a modest — an emphasis on modest — monthly cash assistance to people with disabilities and seniors whose disabilities make it difficult for them to have what’s called substantial gainful employment. And that cash assistance, the maximum amount in 2020 totalled $783 a month. So, that is well below the poverty line. This is a program that is meant to keep people from slipping into deep poverty, but it’s definitely not enough to lift people out of poverty entirely. And in that program, a person can’t have more than $2,000 total in assets in order to be eligible.

And if you think about the fact that disabled people have higher, kind of more expensive needs and they incur expenses that non-disabled people often don’t have to think about. And if you think about even now in the midst of this pandemic, not having even $2,000 on hand can really be the difference between life and death, between stay housed or being unhoused, and can be the difference between having enough food on the table or being hungry as we attempt to weather this unprecedented crisis.

VALLAS: Well, and Azza, it’s a great sort of overview of not just how these policies have worked, but also, it kind of is such a perfect segue way into what we’re now watching play out in this moment. You know, for all the reasons that you point out, asset limits have been a massive, massive problem for a long time, long predating the COVID-19 pandemic. But what we’re watching in a lot of ways, and what finally has people starting to actually pay attention to what might otherwise be a somewhat wonky kind of policy conversation that it would never make the headlines, is, kind of as you were just describing, how few people in this country now have even $400 in the bank, let alone the $2,000 you noted.

Listeners, I’m sure, are familiar with the statistic that comes out of the Federal Reserve year after year: 4 in 10 Americans report that they don’t even have $400 in the bank to be able to shoulder or whether some kind of an unexpected crisis or a job loss or a financial emergency. And in so many ways now, in this moment, with the job loss numbers now mounting into the tens of millions, and people really needing to go out to the grocery store and buy enough food to have in their home to be safe, all of these reasons that having a financial cushion or not is determinative, as you said, of how someone is going to weather this crisis and whether they can at all, really has people focused on savings in kind of this new way. Tell us a little bit about what the research tells us, even outside of a pandemic, about why savings matters when it comes to economic stability and also long-term mobility.

ALTIRAIFI: Absolutely. And I think one of the things that’s really helpful to keep in mind, too, particularly with the example of SSI is, it’s not even just a matter of how much you have put away in savings, but it’s also the fact that when a person with a disability wants to get married, they’re subject to this ridiculous marriage penalty. And what I mean by that is the asset limit that’s set is $2,000 for individuals, but it’s $3,000 for married couples. And I mention this because I want people to understand that these asset limits don’t only impact individuals. It impacts their families. It traps everyone in that person’s orbit in this condition of economic precarity. And we know, we know from years of research, that if people don’t have sufficient savings, when they fall on hard times, they are going to be most acutely at risk and vulnerable. We’re seeing this playing out in real time, because as more and more people become unemployed, they’re going to be turning to the various social safety net programs in order to weather this crisis and get food on the table. But if they are met with a strict asset test that doesn’t allow them to receive those benefits if they have more than $2,000 in assets — so, that includes potential property that they would be expected to convert into cash or things like that — then they’re not going to be able to receive needed assistance. And so, the options that are then available to people become more and more limited.

And I find it both really counterintuitive and extremely frustrating. But it’s also really boggling to me because I just said that the maximum cash benefit for SSI is $783 dollars a month in 2020. And even now, we’re having a conversation about the stimulus cash payment of $1,200. And people, rightly so, are saying that that money is not going to be enough to help people weather this and that they’re going to need more money on hand. And yet people with disabilities have been expected to make do with just under $800 a month. So, I think what we’re really seeing is this is laying bare the extent to which low-income people, people with disabilities, and other historically marginalized groups are expected to somehow make do with far less. And now that this pandemic has destabilized the economy in a way that’s impacting and touching almost everybody, now this interrogation of how oppressively these systems were designed is beginning to kind of dominate public discourses and consciousness.

VALLAS: It’s such an important point. And, you know, it also connects — and I was starting to actually bring up the research, but I want to come back to that, because you’re bringing up such an important point and such an important theme of your report — also, it connects to another side of the coin here, which is something that you’ve actually written a great deal about and studied and researched, which is the earnings side of the coin. Which is not just about income limits because it’s a means tested program that you’re talking about in the case of SSI, but also is another subject that doesn’t usually get a ton of mainstream attention, but that is huge when it comes to the ways in which we either value or devalue disabled people. And that is the archaic and discriminatory sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities, which you point out, actually in this report, is sort of connected to all of this by being just yet another way that we devalue disabled lives and devalue disabled people’s labor.

ALTIRAIFI: Yeah, absolutely. These are all kind of part of the same broader system, right? And they all work together and in tandem to really entrench ableism and also devalue disabled lives and disabled people’s labor. So, when people with disabilities are creating and when disabled people want to work, they’re being barred from doing so. And they’re structurally, systemically being barred from doing so because they are faced with the absurd choice of, I can create these things. I can work, but I might have to risk my eligibility for programs that provide really needed benefits that I can’t otherwise access. Or I can just forego that kind of labor in order to maintain my eligibility. And that ultimately just renders disabled bodies as nothing more than what we perceive their economic output to be. There is nothing more fundamentally dehumanizing than that. And when that dehumanization is literally baked into the public policy landscape within the U.S., it makes it a lot less surprising to me that that politics of disposability is also driving the policy responses to the pandemic, such that states would literally ration treatment to COVID-19 based on ableist perceptions of disabled peoples’ value and worth.

VALLAS: I do want to go back to the research as well, because it does feel like it’s so important to review when you have a conversation about a public policy like this that is so much defined by the counterproductive kind of unintended consequences that flow from it. You noted the rationale, or at least the stated rationale, that proponents of asset limits usually bring up is that it’s about targeting programs to the quote-unquote “truly needy.” Some people will go farther and actually explicitly say that their concern is moral hazard, that somehow we’re going to be allowing people to receive assistance from the government and yet not be all that much in need. But in a lot of ways, the research really speaks incredibly loudly about a very opposite story, one that really is pretty much entirely about unintended consequences and trapping people in poverty. Talk a little bit about what we know from the research and how it connects to the need to reform this policy.

ALTIRAIFI: Absolutely. So, the kind of the consequences of this policy are far-reaching. So, one of the things that I find really disturbing about this is it really accelerates the kind of financial exclusion that disabled people face. So, we know that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty. Just over a quarter of working-age people with disabilities in 2017 lived in poverty. That’s more than twice the rate of non-disabled people of the same age group. And incredibly, households that contain a person with a disability, 60 percent of them are asset poor. So, they did not have enough resources to actually live at the federal poverty level for three months. And as we’re looking at a pandemic for which stay-at-home orders are expected to be in place for an extremely long time, that’s deeply disturbing.

And when we look at how asset limits are administered and how these programs actually end up impacting disabled people’s lives, what we see is that there’s a lot of evidence which shows that those who are actually enrolled in these means tested programs that apply asset limits are actually more likely to be asset poor than low-income people who are not enrolled in those programs. So, put simply, there is a correlation that has been shown in the research between being enrolled in a program that applies asset tests and having less money put away to be able to live at the federal poverty level for just three months. That’s disturbing and really runs counter to the stated claim that asset limits are needed in order to target these programs towards those most in need.

And then further than that, one of the things that I found in researching for this is that it’s also associated with beneficiaries being less likely to have a bank account. So, people are more likely to be unbanked or under-banked — meaning that they do have a bank account, but they also might have to use alternative financial services — when they are in a program that uses asset limits. And I don’t think that people often reflect on just how difficult it is to support yourself and your family if you are unbanked. But just consider, within the scheme of the coronavirus response, that people who don’t have a bank account are going to receive their $1,2000 cash stimulus payment weeks and weeks later than other people. Being marginalized and excluded from mainstream financial institutions carry real life consequences for people. And the fact that programs that have associated asset limits are also programs that make it more likely for people to not be banked is extraordinarily concerning for anyone in public policy, but also, more importantly, indicates to us that asset limits are not doing what people have claimed they’re in place to do.

VALLAS: So, Azza, talk to me a little bit about the reform agenda. There have been calls to fix asset limits, to raise them, to eliminate them for a long time. The SSI asset limit that you mentioned, which has been stuck at $2,000 for an individual and $3000 for a couple, has been stuck there for about 30 years, right? So, this is not a new need that we’re facing. And yet, there hasn’t been the political appetite to take this issue on, certainly not, at least in a bipartisan way. We’ve seen bills introduced by Democrats on a number of different occasions over the years. Talk a little bit about the reform agenda but also whether this moment is creating opportunities for not just having the conversation about the change that we need, but potentially actually paving a path to making some of those changes now that all eyes are on programs like this and the policies that have been broken as part of them for so long, like this one.

ALTIRAIFI: So, right now, there’ve been a lot of conversations about how to get people the resources that they need in order to weather this pandemic. And as part of those conversations, there has been renewed attention on asset limits and how they run counter to the really demonstrated importance of having people build up savings so that they can have their needs, basic needs, met during this crisis. So, in that vein, there is a bill that was introduced back in February called the Allowing Steady Savings by Eliminating Tests or Assets Act. And this would eliminate asset limits for three programs: for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program. And in addition, it would also raise the asset limits associated with SSI from $2,000 for individuals to $10,000, and then from what it previously was for couples, $3,000 to $20,000. So, in doing so, it would eliminate the marriage penalty. And really importantly to your point, Rebecca, about how the limits had not been changed for about 40 years, this is going to index the new limits to inflation. There’ve been calls to enfold of the Asset Act within the next COVID response package, and doing so would be extremely important in maximizing the kind of economic security and mobility of people with disabilities and other low-income groups.

And hopefully, what we’ll see is, as the pandemic kind of lays bare all of the ways that our economic system has not been working for low-income people and has really been working for those at the top, there will be greater political will to try and usher in long overdue structural reforms to actually get cash and to get resources and support to the people who need it most. Additionally to that, the Achieving a Better Life Experience, or ABLE Act, which gives people with disabilities tax advantage savings accounts where they can save money and not risk their eligibility for certain means tested programs, there’s an opportunity here to call for expanding it. Because currently, it’s restricted to people who had an onset of disability before turning 26. And by getting rid of that age restriction, a lot more disabled people will have the opportunity to save without having to risk their benefits in the process.

VALLAS: And Azza, in the last few minutes that I have with you, I would feel significantly remiss if I did not ask you to speak a little bit about another aspect of not just asset limits, but really, the way that low-income people and disabled people have sort of been treated by our various assistance programs over the years that is certainly true of asset limits, but also kind of bespeaks a larger theme. And it’s the experience of constant surveillance, the experience of constantly being monitored, having your financials constantly monitored, your living situation constantly monitored. This is something that you have written a great deal about and which you have also connected to the overcriminalization of people with disabilities and of low-income people. And I would love, in this moment, as people are starting to ask the question of, what does the quote-unquote “new normal” — a phrase that I think has almost no relevance to whatever we’re experiencing or are going to experience down the pike — but the new normal or the next era, the COVID era, people are raising questions: What is that going to look like? And one of the alarm bells that some people are starting to ring is very similar to one that you have been ringing for some time when it comes to people with disabilities who for many, many, many different things are so often the canary in the coal mine. Talk a little bit about surveillance and criminalization in the context of these programs and these policies, but more broadly, how this connects to the fears that some people are starting to sketch out about what may come next, more broadly, not just for people with disabilities in the new COVID era.

ALTIRAIFI: Absolutely. One of the major components of how public assistance programs are structured in the U.S. that seems to escape a lot of attention is the extent to which it’s entangled with the criminal-legal system. And what I mean by that is the administration of public assistance is extremely punitive and often very carceral. Police and law enforcement use the kind of extensive biometric data and information that beneficiaries and applicants have to provide in order to be eligible and receive their benefits in order to surveil the activities of and the whereabouts of people. And in addition to that, I want to emphasize that law enforcement is using the availability of these data to expand its reach. And both in terms of the ways that people’s eligibility can be stripped from them if they have violated, for example, the terms of their parole or received a conviction or adjudication that precludes them from receiving benefits. And that’s something that is economically devastating and disenfranchising. But also the ways that law enforcement has utilized the public assistance administration or the — Sorry. I’m going to say that again. The way that law enforcement has utilized these systems in order to actually reach and re-apprehend and incarcerate people that they were not able to otherwise.

So, one really horrifying example of this is Operation Talon, where law enforcement literally set up a sting operation at an office where people would go to receive their SNAP benefits. So, people would be contacted who law enforcement had identified as being suspects, and they would be told, “You are eligible. And go to this office, and everything will be sorted out.” And then upon arrival, they would be arrested. That’s not something that’s an outlier. It’s actually representative of the way that the criminal-legal system and the administration of public assistance programs have become so entangled. And really, to understand what it is like trying to navigate these systems, not only is it administratively really burdensome, and it’s so much information that someone has to compile in order to be eligible, but it’s deeply invasive information. It is everything about all of your resources and your finances. It’s all of this information about your entire personhood and your family that you have to give up in order to be eligible. So, there’s no, you have to give up any expectation of privacy in order to be eligible to receive this. And what that functionally plays out as, is this attachment of presumptive criminality to anyone who’s applying for or receiving public assistance benefits.

And I also want to note that often, people who receive these benefits are being sanctioned and not even realizing it, right? So, one of the things that really struck me in my research is that between 32 percent and 52 percent of people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families have been sanctioned, meaning that their benefits were reduced or terminated, and they didn’t even realize it, because the system was so convoluted that they assumed the fluctuation in their benefits was just something wrapped up in how complicated the process is. So, it doesn’t even serve the stated intention of being a deterrent, but it also is using things like providing needed food assistance as a way to punish and exert carceral control over low-income, disabled, and other historically marginalized groups. And that should be really concerning to all of us, particularly in this moment, because as you noted, with COVID-19 and with the expanded calls for greater surveillance, it is been the case in this country’s history that in times of crisis, we have lurched towards greater carceral control, greater surveillance, and the implementation of more punitive systems and structures, specifically targeting Black and brown people, disabled people, and low-income people. And it is incumbent on us to be vigilant and to ensure that the civil rights and the privacy rights of these groups are not compromised in order to protect the illusion of safety and security for people with wealth and power.

VALLAS: Azza, hearing you talk about the link between public benefits, eligibility rules and sanctions rules, and surveillance and criminalization, it’s hard for me not to think back to the first case that I actually ever handled, not even as a legal aid lawyer, but when I was still in law school training to be a legal aid lawyer, in my public benefits clinic. And I will never, ever forget this one particular family. The mother was struggling to try to earn enough to afford the costs of raising her disabled daughter and had cobbled together multiple kind of low-wage jobs. And the family was relying on food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But as a way to afford co-pays for her daughter’s medications and doctor’s appointments, Mom had started to sell her blood and her plasma at a nearby blood bank, realizing that she could actually make a little bit of extra money that way and that it was helpful to be able to afford those extra costs. The welfare office found out. And they not only sanctioned her and put the entire family’s nutrition assistance benefits on hold, but they actually, they effectively took her to court. They brought what’s called an intentional program violation, an IPV — I’m getting wonky here, but legal aid lawyers will know that term — against her and the family, which could have, if we had not prevailed in the administrative hearing, led to her actually facing criminal charges for selling her blood out of desperation because the family was trying to pay bills for their daughter with a disability. Because that was considered unreported income that the welfare office thought was a violation of the rules.

What you’re talking about, Azza, could not be more important in a moment like this and just really bears repeating at high volumes until people start to realize the gravity of the policies that we’re talking about and the impacts of surveillance and the links to the criminal justice system that particularly marginalized groups are going to face. You write in your report, and this feels to me like the sort of the note to end on before I offer you one last opportunity to kind of give us some closing words and things to take away for our listeners, but you write in this report, “It should not have taken a global pandemic to recognize that a system that bars low-income, mostly disabled beneficiaries from saving would render them more acutely vulnerable during crises.” I found myself violently agreeing with almost every sentence in this report, but particularly there, “It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic.” But now, hopefully, now that we are here and people are paying attention, there is hope for change. What would you like listeners to take away from this conversation? And what is your note for policymakers to take away at this critical moment?

ALTIRAIFI: Ultimately, when I reflect on all of this, what I want people to realize is that what we choose to do in this moment is going to convey and communicate whether or not we believe that all people have value. Because honestly, all I can say about this is disabled people [bleep] matter. Our lives matter. We have value. And I am so tired of having to fight and to reach for data to support what we have been saying for decades: That we deserve equitable access to all of the things that people need to live and to thrive and to stay in their communities. And as this pandemic makes clear, a system that is designed to exert control over people, to trap them in precarious economic conditions, to strip them of their rights to privacy and of their dignity in the process, are systems that should be dismantled and reimagined so that they actually work for everyone.

VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Azza Altiraifi of the Disability Justice Initiative. And you can find Azza’s new report, which we’ve been speaking about and quoting from, on our nerdy syllabus page. That report is called A Deadly Poverty Trap: Asset Limits in the Time of the Coronavirus. But Azza’s also written a tremendous amount about surveillance and criminalization of disabled people. We’ll have a whole bunch of her writings on our nerdy syllabus page, as well.

Azza, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show, for all the work that you’ve been doing to shine a light on these issues and to bring the changes that we so sorely need in this moment and have needed for so long.

ALTIRAIFI: Thank you for having me and for all your work too, Rebecca.

VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Transcripts are courtesy of Cheryl Green. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.

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