Spotlight Exclusives

Disability Economic Justice Remains Elusive for Millions

Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow and co-director of The Century Foundation's Disability Economic Justice Collaborative Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow and co-director of The Century Foundation's Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, posted on

Nearly 32 years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, economic justice for Americans with disabilities remains elusive. In response, the Century Foundation has launched a new Disability Economic Justice Collaborative—a collection of more than 20 think tanks, research organizations, and disability advocacy groups that plan to work to push policy makers to include a disability lens on policies across the economic spectrum. Rebecca Vallas leads the work at CF and she spoke with Spotlight recently about the Collaborative as well as a new report that provides a baseline for the economic hardships faced by the disability community. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity..

Before we get into the study, why don’t we start by defining what disability economic justice means?

I think that’s a great place to start. The place I always start with this conversation is to say that it’s been almost 32 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, became law. Most people are familiar with that law, but there’s also a real broad misconception that somehow, we’ve checked the box and that now disability justice is a reality in the United States. Unfortunately, that is not true, and more than 31 years after the ADA became law, people with disabilities in the United States still face poverty rates twice as high as people without disabilities. And that’s because of pervasive discrimination and a litany of structural barriers to economic security and upward mobility that continue to persist even though the ADA exists. I should note that disabled people of color in the U.S. face even greater economic disparities and rates of poverty and hardship because of a combination of structural as well as cultural ableism and racism.

So, what does this mean today? It means that the United States disability community is facing an economic crisis that long predates the COVID pandemic. In this moment, despite the fact that 61 million, or more than one in four, U.S. adults live with disabilities—and of course those are numbers that are rapidly rising as the COVID-19 pandemic has been a mass disabling event—economic policy conversations unfortunately just have not included a disability lens. That’s a big part of what is behind this project and why it is so important to understand that if we don’t address disability economic justice, we will never achieve true economic justice in this country. That’s a little bit of the story behind why I brought this work to the Century Foundation.

And so, you’ve started a unit at TCF and there’s also a larger collaborative that’s been set up?

That’s exactly right. The Century Foundation’s Disability Economic Justice team was launched in March 2022 to cement TCF’s strong and growing commitment to disability rights and to disability justice, both as a specific policy area in its own right and as a lens across TCF’s work: economic policy, healthcare, education, etc. I was really, really thrilled to bring on two real leaders from within the disability community to build this work with me: Kim Knackstedt, who until March of this year was President Biden’s director of disability policy on the Domestic Policy Council and the first person to ever hold that role; and the amazing Vilissa Thompson, the founder of an advocacy organization called Ramp Your Voice! and a longtime thought leader at the intersection of race and gender and disability. Each of them brings a unique lens to this work and so, the overarching goal of the team is achieving economic security for people with disabilities in the U.S. To do that, we will focus and are already focusing on centering the voices and the perspectives of disabled people and applying disability as a lens across the entire economic agenda. And that really is the only way we’re ever going to achieve disability economic justice in my strong opinion, as long as disability continues to be an afterthought and people with disabilities continue to be an afterthought in our policy making, particularly our economic policy making.

And the larger collaborative then is a way to bring many long-time players in the general poverty, economic insecurity space into an organization that is an umbrella group that uses this lens?

That’s right. The Disability Economic Justice Collaborative was launched by TCF in partnership with the Ford Foundation on April 21st. We’ve had our first few meetings as a collaborative and it really is a first-of-its-kind initiative that brings together more than 25 leading disability advocacy organizations, D.C.-based think tanks, and top research organizations with the goal of working in partnership, learning from each other, and driving a disability economic justice agenda. And as you note, the formation of the group is significant because it also signals a collective commitment across all of its member organizations to applying disability as a lens across their work. For many organizations who are joining this collaborative, that is a new development and one that is incredibly exciting, but also long overdue as many folks within lots of these organizations themselves feel.

The Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, which I launched in partnership in 2018 with Rebecca Cokley, who is now at the Ford Foundation and is very involved with this project, was the first ever dedicated disability project at any U.S. think tank and it’s sort of unbelievable that it took until 2018 for that kind of a project to exist. The idea here is to really build from the experience and the success of that initiative. We are never going to achieve disability economic justice initiative with one organization saying disability is a lens across all of our work. It needs to be a collective commitment across the entire policy making sector. And that’s true for Democrats, that’s true for Republicans, and folks who identify as progressive and conservative.

I want to get to some of the specific findings of the report, but why has it taken so long?

 It wasn’t that long ago that the Census didn’t even track or disaggregate data about poverty based on disability status. It’s only been for about a decade that we’ve even had data telling us what an economic crisis the disability community is facing. That’s not an excuse to let organizations off the hook for not applying disability as a lens. That’s just, I think, one piece of evidence showing how much the disability community has simply just not been part of the conversation. I think a lot of that is because people with disabilities—while we make up a, a large and powerful voting bloc, 61 million American adults living with disabilities, one in four American adults—unfortunately have historically been marginalized and treated as of the “them” and not part of the “us.”  Historically, people with disabilities have not been at the proverbial table when it comes to making high-level policy decisions and that’s really what this project is all about.

The 2020 election made political history for the disability community, because that was the first time that we saw every Democratic candidate for president release a disability plan, something that had never happened in American political history. Part of what I believe and what my partners in this work believe is that to achieve disability economic justice, we’re going to need to get beyond campaign promises. Campaign promises are a great start but moving beyond campaign promises and achieving economic justice for people with disabilities in this country is going to require not only a redoubling of our national commitment to the unfulfilled goals of the ADA, but also a collective commitment across those in power to applying disability as a lens across the entire economic policy agenda. And this is a moment, because of this historic pandemic, which has spurred the largest new influx to the disability community in this country in modern history. This is a moment when policy makers cannot afford to continue to ignore disabled people and the perspectives of disabled people.

The Century Foundation came together with Data for Progress to do some polling just a couple of weeks ago in tandem with the launch of the collaborative and we asked disabled voters, how do you feel about what’s going on in Washington? Just one in three disabled voters in this country feel that leaders in Washington care about people with disabilities. And that should come as little surprise when we look at the long and sordid history that the United States has of relegating disabled people to the shadows rather than bringing us to the table to be part of policy-making conversations.

So, back to the study—what are some of the top-line findings?

We felt that it was really important in commencing this work to start by understanding what is the economic picture for the disability community today more than three decades after the ADA? And what we found, I have to say, is perhaps even more grim than any of the researchers expected. When we set out upon this research, we teamed up with the Center for Economic and Policy Research to undertake this study and one of the key findings was that people with disabilities in this country face poverty rates twice as high as non-disabled people. That was true before the pandemic and that is true today.

For example, in 2019, 21.6% of disabled people were considered poor under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is the measure we use because it’s somewhat more accurate than the official poverty measure. That’s compared with just over 10% for people without disabilities, so that’s a really, really stark poverty gap there. We also found that disabled people are three times as likely as non-disabled people to experience food insecurity, with having trouble putting food on the table. We also found that roughly half of American adults who turn to homeless shelters in any given year have a disability because the affordable housing crisis, while dire for everyone, is especially dire for disabled people who face not just barriers to affordable housing, but to affordable accessible housing.

A little-known statistic that really shines a light on that housing intersection is that just 5% of the nation’s affordable housing stock is required to be accessible to people with mobility related impairments. That’s woefully inadequate and is not a number that has been reassessed in a very long time. We also found that people with disabilities face a stark earnings gap. Most people are familiar with the pay gap that applies to women or workers of color. But the disability wage gap is not something that has been talked much about within economic policy circles. We found that disabled workers are paid on average 74 cents compared with every dollar paid to their non-disabled peers.

And all of the disparities that I’m describing, as I mentioned before, are even more stark for disabled people of color who live at the intersection of ableism and racism, which act to further compound these poverty gaps across the board for people of color. What we do in this report, as I said, is really to paint a picture of the economic crisis facing the disability community, which long predates the COVID pandemic, but which has been made even more dire during this pandemic era. Future work by the Century Foundation’s Disability Economic Justice team, as well as the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, is going to dig into what are the policy solutions that flow from understanding this crisis.

And what are some of the early thoughts about policy interventions? I would assume that extending some of the COVID-era aid would be one first step.

That should be the bare minimum of what people are thinking about doing right now, for sure. There’s a lot of ideas that are not actually even new ideas, but which have really just been shelved for a long time and not taken seriously or put on the front burner by federal policy makers. One example is the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) which has largely been forgotten by Washington for almost 40 years. That’s a program that provides critical survival-level income to almost 8 million disabled and older Americans, including 1 million disabled children, but because the program has been left to wither on the vine for 38 years, its core elements are just woefully out of date and have not even been updated for inflation.

So, one exciting development that we saw recently was the introduction of bipartisan legislation by Sen. Sharrod Brown (D) and Senator Rob Portman (R) from Ohio teaming up call on Congress to update SSI’s woefully out of date asset limits, which haven’t been updated for inflation since 1989. That’s legislation that now also has the backing of employers, including influential business voices like JP Morgan Chase, who just released a brief finding that out-of-date asset limits in this critical program create barriers to saving as well as to labor market participation. We’re increasingly seeing that this is an idea that has widespread bipartisan support among American voters of all political stripes, disabled and non-disabled. Seeing this kind of bipartisan momentum in a moment like this does give me hope that policy makers in Washington are going to listen to this under-appreciated voting bloc and start to ask the question, where can we find common ground, so that we don’t leave this community behind entirely moving forward.


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