Headlines of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets heralded the just released U.S. Census Bureau report that unveiled the largest economic gains in more than 20 years. As American household incomes rose sharply, those living in poverty declined by the millions, and the changes in economic status cut across all major age groups, as well as gender, race, ethnicity and geographic region.
The median household income was documented by U.S. Census data as $56,500 in 2015, up 5.2 percent from the previous year and the largest single year increase since record-keeping began in 1967. The report indicates that the benefits of the economic recovery begun in late 2009 are spreading more broadly to even those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The poverty rate for people aged 18 to 64 dropped 1.1 percentage points from 13.5 percent to 12.4 percent.
However, there is a larger story behind these positive numbers that did not capture a single mention from any media outlet - television, print, online or through social media. While the Census report indicates that blacks living in poverty decreased by 2.1 percent, Hispanics living in poverty decreased by 2.2 percent and women living in poverty decreased by 1.3 percent, which translates to a more positive economic status for millions of Americans whether they lived in cities or in the South, Midwest or Western regions of the country, there is still another story not being reported and drawing no attention from economists, policy makers or either presidential candidate. Buried on page 16 of the 70 page "Income and Poverty in the United States" report from the U.S. Census Bureau are a scant two paragraphs that document the plight of Americans aged 18 to 64 with a disability.
For this group of people with disabilities, the 2015 poverty rate (28.5 percent) and number in poverty (4.4 million) were "not statistically different from 2014." The report further reveals that, among people aged 18 to 64, those with a disability represented "7.7 percent of all people, compared to 17.9 percent of people aged 18 to 64 in poverty."
No story. No headlines. No interviews with economists, thought leaders, policy makers or our presidential candidates as to why every other group of people defined by individual characteristics of age, gender, race, ethnicity or geographic location is showing signs of benefiting from a changing economic picture and shared prosperity, except for working-age adults with disabilities.
Is it a non-story because no one expects Americans with disabilities to be valued participants in the economic mainstream? Is it because there are limited expectations about people with disabilities working and being active consumers, investors and asset builders? Is it because, 26 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), other federal and state laws and policies perpetuate dependency on public benefits, strangle individual initiative and self-determination to work and build assets, and fail to create a 21st century structure and incentives that increase earned income production and preservation? Is it indifference, or worse, that we as a nation accept the poverty status of people with disabilities as an acceptable extension of antiquated attitudes of pity, isolation and devaluation that does not need to be changed?
And what if you are a working-age adult with a disability and a woman and a person of color? Then you are below the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Your household income is less than half the national average. You are unbanked or underbanked, more likely to use a check cashing store or pawnshop for financial services and making poor financial decisions that plunge you deeper into poverty. This is not a disability story. This is a story of economic recovery leaving behind the most economically vulnerable population. This is a story of the human face of poverty in America that deserves our urgent attention.
The disability community should be outraged. Policy makers should be shouting "Unacceptable!" and moving forward with bipartisan support that create pathways to a better economic future. No one running for office at any level should get a pass and not be questioned about their priorities to change this picture. The philanthropic community should commit at least a billion dollars to innovative solutions and a portfolio of next generation projects which combat inequality and promote shared prosperity that target the financial instability and poverty levels so entrenched and now status quo for people with disabilities. The media should be writing the story and probing how a nation with such a rich tradition of creating opportunity and equality can ignore these statistics. We know better and can do better. So presidential candidates and giants of philanthropy - what exactly is your plan?
The number of people across the diversity of disability is more pervasive than ever - the family member who returns as a wounded warrior, the child identified on the autism spectrum, the brother or sister with an acquired disability from a changing health condition or an accident, the aging parent and the many baby boomers confronting disability for the first time, as well as those with invisible disabilities who don't self-identify.
This story needs to be talked about! There is no shame in living a life with a disability. The shame is that the media sees no reason to cover this story, and our public and private thought leaders are ignoring this poverty picture and not creating the urgent call to action to do something about it.
It is unacceptable!
On July 26, 2016, the 26th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), National Disability Institute (NDI) launched DISABLE POVERTY, a grassroots campaign which aims to increase awareness about the nearly one in three Americans with disabilities that live in poverty and remain outside the economic mainstream. Please join us to elevate and amplify the conversation around poverty and disability in America by taking the DISABLE POVERTY pledge. Through our words and our actions, we can disable poverty and advance shared prosperity for all Americans.
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