More than two dozen of the nation’s leading disability organizations, research and advocacy groups, and think tanks today launched the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, a first-of-its-kind effort to break the persistent link between disability and poverty and finally achieve economic justice for disabled Americans. As part of the launch, a major new study out today from The Century Foundation and the Center for Economic and Policy Research provides the most comprehensive look to date at the staggering scale and scope of the economic crisis facing disabled people in the U.S., and disabled people of color in particular, on nearly every dimension of economic well-being. 

The Collaborative is spearheaded by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, in partnership with the Ford Foundation. During a launch event this afternoon, leaders will lay out a vision for the Collaborative and present groundbreaking new research on the barriers to economic security for disabled Americans. The event will feature remarks from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, members of the new collaborative, and more.

“In 2022, more than three decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, disability and poverty should not go hand in hand,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at The Century Foundation and co-founder of the Collaborative. “We can no longer afford to pat ourselves on the back after acknowledging the ‘unfinished business’ of the ADA once a year on its anniversary in July. Achieving long-denied economic justice for disabled people in the U.S. will require centering the perspectives and expertise of disabled people across all of the nation’s economic policymaking—and I’m excited and humbled to work alongside the diverse array of remarkable policy leaders who make up the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative to finally make that a reality.”

A new study from researchers at The Century Foundation and The Center for Economic and Policy Research reveals that the economic plight of the U.S. disability community is even more dire than headline statistics suggest. Among the report’s findings:

  • The poverty rate for adults with disabilities—22 percent (in 2019, pre-pandemic)—is more than twice the rate faced by nondisabled adults (10 percent
    • In 2020, 18 percent of disabled adults lived in poverty, compared to roughly 8 percent of nondisabled adults 
    • In 2019, more than one in four (28 percent) disabled Black adults lived in poverty, compared to 18 percent of white disabled adults
  • A stark earnings gap results in disabled workers earning on average 74 cents on the dollar compared with nondisabled workers (based on 2020 data)
  • Just over half of adults with disabilities said they had substantial difficulty paying their monthly bills—nearly twice the national average of 27 percent
  • Over one in five disabled people experience food insecurity, three times the rate as nondisabled people
  • Roughly 40 percent of renters with a disability report being housing insecure (compared to the national average of 25 percent
  • People with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in our prisons and jails: nearly half of all incarcerated women reported having a disability (based on 2016 data)

“COVID-19 has tightened the economic squeeze for people across America, especially those who were already struggling under the antiquated, discriminatory policies that keep an overwhelming number of people with disabilities living in poverty,” said Rebecca Cokley, program officer for the Ford Foundation’s U.S. Disability Rights program, the first program of its kind at a major U.S. foundation. “There is no economic justice without disability. We are proud to support this groundbreaking initiative to equip grassroots advocates with research that will help bridge the divide for disabled Americans.” 

Data for Progress, a leading polling firm and Collaborative member, is also announcing the launch of a new disability polling project that integrates disability as a lens across their polling. The initial results, released today as part of an April survey of 1,167 likely voters, demonstrates large majorities of voters of all political stripes—disabled and nondisabled alike—overwhelmingly support public policies that would advance economic justice for disabled Americans. More alarming, however, only three in ten disabled voters believe that leaders in Washington care about people with disabilities, findings that underscore the political consequences of ignoring voters with disabilities. 

The Collaborative will work to bridge the gap between leading disability advocacy organizations and D.C.-based think tanks and research organizations, enabling the groups to work in partnership, learn and benefit from each other, and drive a disability economic justice agenda. The Collaborative will focus, in particular, on advancing racial and gender equity within disability economic justice, working to dismantle the multiple and compounding layers of discrimination and economic marginalization that disabled people of color face. 

“Advancing economic security for disabled Americans requires a change to the status quo of how this work is done, that’s why we’re bringing together partners across the disability community, researchers, and collaborators at other think tanks,” said Kimberly Knackstedt, senior fellow, The Century Foundation’s Disability Economic Justice Team. The Collaborative will take on the critical work of confronting the systemic barriers we’ve outlined in our new report, released today, and will provide lasting, long-term solutions that truly move us closer to a more equitable society. I’m thrilled to be engaged in this work and at the table with our incredible partners, setting goals and working to bring a disability lens across all economic policy.” 

The Collaborative’s launch comes at a pivotal moment in the fight for disability justice, one marked by both great opportunity and challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has already become one of the largest mass disabling events in modern history, spurring the largest influx of new entrants to the U.S. disability community in decades due to huge numbers of people newly disabled by long COVID. At the same time, public awareness in the U.S. has been growing that, with one in four Americans living with a disability, every issue is a disability issue. As just one example, in the run-up to the 2020 election, nearly every Democratic presidential candidate released a disability plan for the first time in American political history, and as of 2020, both parties’ platforms now call for ending the discriminatory sub-minimum wage.  

Founding member organizations in the Collaborative include: Access Living, Activating Change, American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), The Arc of the United States, Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), Center for American Progress (CAP) Disability Justice Initiative, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Data for Progress, Food Research and Action Council (FRAC), Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, Justice in Aging, The Kelsey, Kelly’s Kitchen, National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, National Pain Advocacy Center, National Partnership for Women and Families, New America, Nexus Project at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Patient Led Research Collaborative, Urban Institute, Vera Institute for Justice, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Leading disability advocates joining the Collaborative in their individual capacity are: Andraea Lavant and Dior Vargas.

“It is imperative that economic justice not just include disabled people, but also is intentionally intersectional,” said Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, a fellow at The Century Foundation. “The lives of disabled Americans are incredibly diverse and the conditions in which we live reflect that. The Collaborative is an example of what it means to reflect the diversity of the community as to who is a part of the work and the insight they bring that combines their lived and professional experiences.”

Statements in support of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative (DEJC)

“In order for the disability community to achieve disability and economic justice, progressive organizations must recognize that disability is a part of their mission. ASAN is thrilled to work with so many different organizations in the process of integrating disability into all aspects of their advocacy.”

— Julia Bascom, executive director, Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) 

“Barriers to economic security and inclusion for people with disabilities remain relatively under-discussed in mainstream policy circles. But economic justice for all cannot be achieved without addressing the ways structural inequality harms disabled people and their loved ones.”

— Hayley Brown, research associate, Center for Economic and Policy Research 

“CLASP is proud to be a member of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. We know eradicating poverty and promoting racial justice are inextricably tied to advancing disability economic justice. People with disabilities are essential members of our schools, workforces, and communities. Yet they face increased rates of poverty, higher unemployment, and stigmatization from institutional ableism. This is especially true for people of color with disabilities. We look forward to promoting disability economic justice in our work as part of the collaborative.” 

— Ashley Burnside, policy analyst with the Income and Work Supports Team, The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)

“Increasing attention has been brought to the nexus of race and disability, critiquing the whitewashing of disability research, activism, and scholarship. Critical concepts such as intersectionality and justice are often used as rhetoric rather than as praxis. One neglected area is research on race and disability employment. Racial bias in disability employment has not yet been captured in research and scholarship, nor has its impact on policy and practices been fully recognized. This is the goal of the Nexus Project, which is focused on conducting interdisciplinary research in racial bias and equity in disability employment that will establish a foundational evidence-base from an economic justice perspective. We are excited to join the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative and work together to advance future research, policy, and practice.”

— Dr. Kate Caldwell, Nexus Project, University of Illinois at Chicago

“Achieving economic justice for all disabled people is intrinsically tied to ensuring that all people with and without disabilities can live in housing that is affordable, accessible, and inclusive. The Kelsey is proud to join the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, where we will work in partnership to embed disability-forward housing solutions into this national economic justice agenda for people with disabilities.” 

— Allie Cannington, senior manager, The Kelsey 

“This new initiative is an incredibly important venture that will survey those with disabilities to help policymakers see the issues that matter most to this important constituency and integrate disability as a lens through which we look at all policy.”

— Matthew Cortland, senior fellow, Data for Progress 

“Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) is thrilled to join the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. CLS’s SSI Unit provides free legal representation to disabled Philadelphians who are facing loss or denial of income supports and health care. CLS also helps people struggling with eviction or mortgage foreclosure, utility termination, family separation and other legal crises. Policy failures at all levels of government have trapped our clients in poverty.  We are looking forward to joining forces with the other organizations in the Collaborative to create new spaces for our clients to fight for justice.”

— Kristen M. Dama, managing attorney, SSI and medical-legal partnerships, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) 

“Injustice against people with disabilities places enormous burdens upon women and families, especially those of color. Disability justice is impossible to separate from the economic and health justice issues we’ve advocated for throughout the National Partnership’s 50-year history. We are excited to work alongside our new partners in the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative to help break down barriers confronting people with disabilities and elevate their voices.”

— Jocelyn Frye, president, the National Partnership for Women & Families

“When people with disabilities are constrained from participating fully in our economy, we all lose out. We at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth look forward to participating in the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, and exploring ways we can apply a disability justice lens to economic research and policymaking to help foster strong, stable and broad-based growth that benefits all.” 

— Alix Gould-Werth, director of family economic security policy, The Washington Center for Equitable Growth

“Achieving universal economic security and reducing inequality from its current extremes requires an intersectional focus on disability justice. The Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative generates innovative policy ideas—on topics from paid leave to the decennial census—that would advance economic security for people with disabilities in the United States, particularly women and people of color. We’re excited to join the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative to drive disability justice across the entire economic policy agenda.” 

— Kali Grant, Associate Director, Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative

“Disability, older age, and poverty are intertwined. The impacts of living with discrimination as a disabled person magnify over the years, increasing the risk of deep poverty in old age. Justice in Aging is deeply committed to advancing disability economic justice on behalf of all older adults trying to live with dignity as they age.”

— Tracey Gronniger, director of economic security, Justice in Aging

“Food insecurity disproportionately affects people with disabilities, especially Black and Latino people. The problem of food insecurity among people with disabilities would be far worse if not for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other federal nutrition programs. However, to achieve economic justice for people with disabilities, much work is needed to strengthen these programs to ensure all people with disabilities are food secure. FRAC is eager to work with the Collaborative members to promote disability economic justice and continue fighting for holistic, inclusive approaches to the solutions needed to mitigate hunger and poverty among people with disabilities.”

— Luis Guardia, president, Food Research & Action Council (FRAC)

“The Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress is excited to be a founding member of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. COVID has laid bare the drastic inequities in the United States current economic policies.  The last two years have been a reminder of how necessary it is for organizations and advocates to collaborate to create a more equitable and just economy for all.” 

— Mia Ives-Rublee, Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress

“Economic justice for people with disabilities means making it easier to have choices in one’s life. People with disabilities are forced to live in poverty to get the benefits and help they need to live in the community, and The Arc and allies in this effort are on a mission to change that reality. The disability community is a force for change, and we are thrilled to be a part of this collaborative to strengthen our advocacy.”

— Bethany Lilly, senior director of income policy, The Arc

“Economic justice cannot be achieved without centering disability justice. And indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it quite clear that when policies are made without a disability justice lens, there are catastrophic consequences. As an organization of people with Long COVID researching Long COVID whose community has been deeply affected financially by this mass disabling event, Patient-Led Research Collaborative is proud to be part of this exciting and needed new initiative.” 

— Lisa McCorkell, co-founder, Patient-Led Research Collaborative

“People with pain may be the largest disability cohort in the US, and pain’s economic burden has been measured as costing more than half a trillion US dollars each year. But few data examine the burden faced by individuals with pain, themselves, even though we know they face disproportionate barriers participating in the workplace, discrimination in obtaining SSI and SSDI, and extremely high heath care expenses. National Pain Advocacy Center is thrilled to join this Disability Economic Justice Collaborative to fight for economic rights for all people with disabilities, including those living with pain.”

— Kate Nicholson, executive director & founder, National Pain Advocacy Center

“Without access to justice, economic justice for the disability community is often out of reach.  The legal system is generally inaccessible to unrepresented litigants, and the problem is compounded for those with cognitive or physical disabilities that further impede equitable access to the courts.  This in turn leads to unjust and inaccurate court rulings on matters affecting economic justice, like access to public benefits or housing.  We are excited at the prospect of working with the Collaborative to expand appointment of counsel and/or the right to counsel for disabled litigants in order to help protect these critical economic rights.”  

— John Pollock, coordinator, National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel

“I’m delighted that the Urban Institute is joining the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. We believe in the power of research to support economic mobility and equity for people with disabilities. Our researchers look forward to developing rigorous and timely evidence to help improve the lives of this often overlooked community.”

— Susan J. Popkin, Ph.D, institute fellow and director, HOST Initiative, Urban Institute 

“The Center is committed to pursuing policies that will improve the health and economic well-being of people with disabilities. This includes helping more disabled people access affordable health coverage and live safely in their homes and communities and doing more to reduce hardship.” 

— Kathleen Romig, director of social security and disability policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

“New America is proud to be working with the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative to prioritize the assets and needs of the disability community. Across our work in education, employment, and family and economic mobility, we see that people with disabilities are much less likely to complete high school and college and to be gainfully employed, and far more likely to live in poverty and to face inadequate and uneven legal protections. We also see the overlapping and combining effects of racial and disability bias and injustice, and the harm that it causes individuals, communities, and our entire nation. We cannot resign ourselves to accept this and look forward to being a part of the Collaborative’s efforts to advance disability economic justice.”

— Elena Silva, senior director, New America 

“People with disabilities have long been excluded from justice policymaking and advocacy work, despite being disproportionately represented at every point in the criminal legal system—from arrest to incarceration to parole. Increasing awareness of the unique economic barriers people with disabilities face is an important step toward economic justice, as well as individual and community well-being. Vera and Activating Change look forward to harnessing our collective power, expertise, and ideas to eliminate these structural barriers for people with disabilities.” 

— Nancy Smith, center director, Vera Institute of Justice; future director of the independent nonprofit Activating Change

Right now, many people with disabilities aren’t just near financial crisis, they live financial crisis every single day. For these folks, and indeed for most people with disabilities, economic security is an illusion. Access Living is proud to be part of an effort that aims to break the disability poverty code that has only become more deeply entrenched every year. We are here to say this is no longer acceptable.”

Amber Smock, director of advocacy, Access Living 

“This is the right group at the right time with the right approach to manifest the promise of true disability justice.”

— Kelly Timmons, Kelly’s Kitchen

“The work of this collaborative could not be more important or timely. To end the systemic poverty experienced by disabled people will require centering the experiences of the disability community within shared research and advocacy agendas. That is exactly what this collaborative will do, and AAPD is proud to be a part of it. There is no disability justice without economic justice.” 

— Maria Town, President and CEO, American Association of People with Disabilities

“I’m very honored to be part of this collaborative where we can continue the work that the advocates who came before us started. The economic status of the disability community is a crucial aspect of our social justice work and I am excited to see what we can accomplish.”

— Dior Vargas, leading intersectional mental health activist