EmpoweredNYC is a groundbreaking partnership dedicated to improving the financial security of New Yorkers with disabilities and their families. Multiple partners have come together to provide this service, including National Disability Institute (NDI), which continues to integrate its knowledge of disability benefits into the EmpoweredNYC financial counseling process. This expertise allows financial counselors to provide enhanced, one-on-one counseling to individuals with disabilities on topics such as work incentives, ABLE accounts, how earnings affect benefits and how to communicate effectively with the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other public benefit programs.
Before they could begin counseling clients, all of the counselors received in-depth training. Mario Gutierrez, the Director of the Financial Counseling Division at New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), which leads the financial counseling program team, says the training was phenomenal. “We had training sessions about tailoring financial counseling for people with disabilities, not only basics, but also really detailed procedures so that we could [best] help clients and coach them through any challenges,” he shares. “We also took a deep dive into Social Security, SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and SSI (Supplemental Security Income). We had to learn about overpayments, which is debt an individual owes to SSA, and the training really took it up a level to give us the technical knowledge we needed.”
Financial counselors throughout the five boroughs are now conducting one-on-one counseling sessions with more than 300 individuals with disabilities who are interested in financial empowerment. Mario added, “We continue to be impressed with how engaged and motivated clients are to work on their finances. Our clients are experts in their lives. We come in as a partner to strengthen that part of their lives as a financial coach and help them plan out their finances. We tell them, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’”
Mario says they get a lot of positive feedback from the clients and that the majority are excited to work with a counselor who understands key aspects of their financial life. “We feel we are filling a void here. We get real-time feedback from clients that this is a great service, that they wish they knew about it beforehand. Our team loves taking their expertise and leading folks toward financial stability.”
Guari Gonzalez is a financial counselor with Ariva, a nonprofit teaming up with NYLAG to provide these services. His first client through the EmpoweredNYC partnership, “Sue,” came to her first counseling session in January with the goal of eventually purchasing a home.
Sue had her own expectations of what needed to be done to achieve her goal. She was focused on her credit score, but she had more than $40,000 in debt. About $20,000 was from student loans and around $4,000 was medical and other private debt. Sue began to question the pace of the progress being made about two months into their regular sessions. One of Guari’s challenges was to keep her motivated. He let her know that the process would take some time. He started with what he called “baby steps” – things like disputing wrongful debts and learning ways to save while still paying off debt. They also discussed strategic ways to build credit.
After these initial steps, Sue was able to see substantial strides, watching her debt decrease from more than $40,000 to about $16,000, and her credit score increase by 41 points.
Guari and Sue continue to meet. Their focus now is not only on reducing debt, but also increasing savings. Sue’s progress has kept her encouraged and Guari still hopes to help her achieve her goal of buying a home.
Ready and ABLE
Mario shared the story of “Jessica,” his first EmpoweredNYC client.
Jessica was looking for work and wanted to learn about the effect employment would have on her benefits. In the past, while receiving benefits and working, she experienced an overpayment and wanted to avoid that in the future.
Pulling from the training that he received, Mario was able to outline issues concerning going back to work, particularly the Trial Work Period (TWP), the Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) and Impairment-Related Work Expenses (IRWEs).
Thanks to EmpoweredNYC, Jessica knew what to expect. She returned to working about two months ago. Jessica is earning enough money now that she will likely stop receiving SSDI in the future but, because of Mario’s help, she feels ready for what comes next.
Mario also recounted his experience counseling a student named “Karla.”
Like many college students, Karla had big plans. In order to achieve those plans, she wanted to build her assets and was interested in opening an ABLE account.
After discussing risk tolerance, Karla chose her investments and decided to open a Massachusetts ABLE account. Mario continues to counsel Karla on the next steps toward building assets and achieving her financial goals.
“We know what we’re talking about.”
Alma Rojas is a financial counselor with NYLAG. She shared the complicated story of a client she referred to as “Jane.”
Jane is in her mid-60s. Late last year, she received overpayment notices from the Social Security Administration indicating that she had a debt with SSA and needed to pay back $12,000. The notices stated that she was over the resource limit for a period of time two years ago and that her SSI cash benefit would be suspended. Additionally, Jane was supposed to start receiving a Social Security retirement benefit, but that benefit would also be reduced as part of SSA’s recoupment for overpayment. She tried to resolve the issue on her own by explaining the situation to Social Security and also by filing a Request for Reconsideration. Alma helped Jane continue the appeal process with extensive research and documentation. Together, they submitted a Waiver of Overpayment application. In total, the submission to SSA was over 50 pages long and, in consultation with NDI and the NYLAG Public Benefit Unit, the application detailed three reasons why Jane was not at fault for the overpayment.
Throughout the process, Alma was in contact with Social Security, who were helpful in explaining the language and documentation to use in the application. Recently, SSA informed Alma that Jane’s waiver had been approved. She will resume receiving SSI benefits along with her retirement benefit, which will no longer be reduced. A huge deficit in her monthly budget no longer exists and this will make a significant difference in her life.
EmpoweredNYC offers free and confidential one-on-one financial counseling for people with disabilities. Financial counselors are trained in disability benefits and accessibility and can help clients understand how working could affect disability benefits, how to manage disability benefits and services while paying bills and saving money and how best to manage money and become more financially stable.
Empowered NYC is led by the NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Strategic partners include National Disability Institute; Citi Community Development; Poses Family Foundation; and an Advisory Board of municipal offices, disability service providers and financial empowerment service providers.
To make a referral or to schedule an appointment, visit NYC.gov/EmpoweredNYC.
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