A Call to Action to Ask for More
When Employment First becomes the culture in Georgia, will it provide enough help for people with disabilities to have the good life? The life that everyone strives for, regardless of disability, without want for basic necessities? Employment First Georgia advocates suggest a call to action for more. The joy of having a job or developing a career is diminished without financial stability. A successful Employment First culture in Georgia will embrace employment in an integrated setting, at a living wage as the expectation, not the exception. What does it mean to earn a living wage, not just minimum wage? It means that when you are working, you have enough money to live comfortably and to save some as well. It means that you can save for vacations, better technology or furniture. It means that you can use a credit card and have the satisfaction of paying the balance (or learn the lesson of what happens when you do not).
But, sometimes, we make assumptions that these things will not be part of the life of a person with a disability.
When people earn a living wage, they make enough to meet their expenses. In the disability service system, there is a belief that people should not be bothered with their living expenses or what their cost of daily living is. However, it is vital for everyone to know what it takes to shop, to cook, to obtain medical care and to enjoy entertainment to achieve financial stability. We must raise the expectation of what someone's monthly expenses are. Monthly expenses include utilities, room and board and the things that the majority of society chooses to have a good life within our means.
When we visit people with disabilities throughout Georgia who are not working, we are astounded by how few people are given access to their own savings accounts. According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development, 69% of individuals with disabilities reported they have no checking account and 54% reported no savings account. People who receive public benefits have money left over monthly, even if it is a small amount. But, without the knowledge of how much is saved and what it can buy, people are in no better condition to increase their standard of living.
Compound the mystery of savings with the minimum or subminimum wage a person with a disability can expect to earn. People with disabilities earning a minimum wage for a few hours each week rarely enjoy the fruits of their labor. Seven dollars and 25 cents an hour for a few hours rarely gets a person beyond trips to the discount stores and meals at fast food restaurants. Moreover, the incentive for working harder, increasing job skills and achieving promotions is diminished when the financial incentive remains the same.
So, when Employment First is the culture in Georgia and people with disabilities are offered effective employment supports without the expectation that they should make a living wage, people with disabilities will not rise out of the poverty that they have been segregated into for generations. "Because tax dollars support the services of public rehabilitation [and other employment support services impacted by an Employment First policy], it is reasonable to demand that the employment secured lays the foundation for financial stability," as written in Why Financial Stability Matters in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling by Abby Lindman Cooper.
In an Employment First culture, a person with a disability is offered the opportunity to work before being offered other services. They are given the chance to work and earn money. However, there is an assumption that after the employment support provider helps someone
find a job, the goal has been reached. We tell ourselves that everyone starts out making minimum wage and that public benefits will pay for what minimum wage does not. There is a myth that people with disabilities do not have the same wants and needs as everyone else, such as owning nice material goods or experiencing a rich social life. We must break this assumption. Instead, we must model raised expectations so that a person with a disability who strives to earn a living wage can choose to buy concert tickets, go to a sporting event and frequent a nice restaurant.
In a successful Employment First culture, a person with a disability will be presented with employment in an integrated setting within the community as the first and priority service option. Equally important, they will be presented with what to expect in wages, hours, benefits, taxes and the impact on a credit score, the opportunity for saving, work incentives and plans to become more financially independent.
The most important thing is supporting individuals with disabilities to make the critical connection that financial resources are a means to an end, and to know that they can and should take ownership of their own financial lives. We have an obligation to support families and people with disabilities who expect financial stability. By the time a person is old enough to go to work, regardless of disability, the expectation will have been set from a young age that he or she will make a living wage, not just "get a job."
We will support families to seek and obtain support and information. For example, families can contact the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance Projects to learn how any wage will affect public benefits. Each county in the State is served by the Shepherd Center or Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. Families can go to www.benefitsnavigator.org/gpage2.html to learn which agency serves them, and call to talk about the special rules that help job seekers work and still receive monthly payments and Medicaid or Medicare.
An ideal Employment First culture can create incentives for providers of employment support services when they help a person work for a living wage instead of minimum wage. An ideal Employment First culture can also create incentives for providers of employment support services when people with disabilities earn promotions, raises and employment-related benefits. Employment supports do not end when someone earns his or her first paycheck. Employment supports continue to assist people with disabilities to earn a living wage and live the good life!
CRYSTAL RASA, JD, is the program accountability director and employment director at the Georgia Advocacy Office.