Michael Morris’s research into and advocacy work around the financial security and capability of Americans with disabilities earned him the 2020 Ketchum Prize, the FINRA Foundation’s highest honor. On this episode, we talk to Morris, the founder of the National Disability Institute, about his research and advocacy work and the intersection of race and disability.
In the 30 years since the passage of the of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, there have been profound changes. But in this 30th Anniversary year, much remains to be done to advance the economic self-sufficiency of Americans with disabilities.
Michael Morris’s research into and advocacy work around the financial security and capability of Americans with disabilities earned him the 2020 Ketchum Prize, the FINRA Foundation’s highest honor, which looks to recognizes outstanding service and research to advance investor protection and financial capability in the U.S.
On this episode, we talk to Michael Morris, the founder of the National Disability Institute, about his research, the intersection of race and disability, potentially impactful policy changes that have yet to be made and what leaves him feeling optimistic about the future.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
National Disability Institute
Keys to Financial Inclusion Podcast
Race, Ethnicity and Disability: The Financial Impact of Systemic Inequality and Intersectionality
Financial Capability of Adults with Disabilities
Webinar, October 14: The Extra Costs of Living with a Disability
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00:00 - 00:39
Kaitlyn Kiernan: In the 30 years since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, there have been profound changes. But in this 30th anniversary year much remains to be done to advance the economic self-sufficiency of Americans with disabilities. On this episode, we talked to Michael Morris, the 2020 recipient of the FINRA Foundation's Ketchum Prize. We'll hear from Michael about his research into the financial security and capability of Americans with disabilities, about the intersection of race and disability, potentially impactful policy changes that have yet to be made and what leaves him feeling optimistic about the future.
00:39 – 00:49
00:49 - 01:03
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Welcome to FINRA Unscripted, from Hoboken, New Jersey, I'm your host Kaitlyn Kiernan. I am pleased to welcome to the show today the 2020 recipient of the FINRA Foundation's Ketchum Prize, Michael Morris. Michael, welcome to the show.
01:04 - 01:07
Michael Morris: Well thank you for inviting me. Look forward to our conversation.
01:07 - 01:32
Kaitlyn Kiernan: So, Michael, you have a very impressive biography. We could talk about that all episode long, but you've been working for more than 30 years to improve the lives of people with disabilities and nearly 20 years ago now, in 2001, you founded the National Disability Institute to advance the social and economic independence of persons with disabilities. How did you first get involved with this field?
01:32 - 02:59
Michael Morris: Well, so many people have gotten involved due to a member of their family--a son or a daughter. My path was not the direct path. I went to law school believing that I'd work for a law firm. I had no clear path other than that. And after my first year in law school I worked for a law firm and quickly realized, "wow, this is not the way I want to spend the rest of my life." And so, when I graduated from law school, I started looking around. What are alternatives? And I fortunately had worked for a member of the state legislature in Georgia—I went to Emory University Law School—and saw about a job opening with a disability organization that said I would be spending about three quarters of my time trying to influence decisions of the Georgia General Assembly. And so, I thought, "OK, that's something I know and I like." I applied for the job and they said, what do you know about disability?" I said, "virtually nothing." And they said, "what do you know about the whole legislative process?" I said, "I know everything. I've spent the last three years working with members of the legislature." They said, "You're hired." And so that is a rather inauspicious beginning to what has become a passion and a commitment to advance the financial health and well-being of people with disabilities.
03:00 - 03:11
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Well it's fortunate you found out that big law was not for you early on so you could find this area that made you feel passionate. You have been in this field for more than 30 years, so what keeps you there?
03:13 - 04:43
Michael Morris: What keeps me there is a sense that we haven't yet really achieved a full understanding about the financial instability, the challenges people with disabilities face. And what I realize is that there are so many questions to still be answered. I find new challenges every day. I particularly got very interested in what is this enduring, almost life sentence of poverty that most people with disabilities face. If they're going to access lifesaving public benefits related to health care food and housing assistance and other things, so many of our federal laws require people with disabilities to remain poor and that just doesn't make any sense. And that got me interested in really trying to understand more about could we create better relationships between the financial community and the disability community. And that was the beginning of what has evolved each year and almost each month with me, new questions new puzzles to be solved and really trying to promote greater understanding and greater commitment by so many sectors--the financial sector, the public sector, by people with disabilities and the non-profit community. What can we do collectively together to improve pathways to better financial stability and security for people with disabilities.
04:45 - 05:02
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Yet that doesn't sound like it makes any sense to have a system set up so that you have to essentially stay poor to access important benefits. So, I mentioned at the top that you founded the National Disability Institute. Can you tell me what is this organization and what does it do?
05:02 - 06:28
Michael Morris: This was not a preconceived idea or a course of action that I had planned out. I became more and more interested in strategies around poverty reduction and really building pathways to better financial inclusion and financial health for people with disabilities. And I started talking with the many other organizations based in Washington D.C. to join with me. Let's focus on poverty reduction strategies. And they looked at me and they said they just didn't get it. They didn't understand. What does this have to do with the work they were doing? They were working on housing and health care and increasing employment for people with disabilities or education. And I said it's the connection to everything. But they didn't see it.
So out of necessity, I started the organization with just two others and some interesting people that I had met in both the financial and the disability community, and now some 15 years later, we've built a larger organization. We have some 40 staff. We have a multimillion-dollar budget. We focus on research, community education, training, technical assistance and fundamentally breaking down barriers to why people with disabilities can't have more choices and more opportunities to have greater financial health and advance their economic self-sufficiency.
06:28 - 06:40
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That sounds like such an important mission. And before we dig in a little bit more on the research and work you've done, I just want to make sure we're all on the same page. What exactly does the term disability mean?
06:40 - 08:45
Michael Morris: So, disability, you would think it's straightforward enough. Maybe people immediately conjure in their minds, "oh, that's someone in a wheelchair." Or someone else might say, "that's someone who can't see, they're blind or they're deaf." But disability is a much more complicated and complex subject than that. People with disabilities may begin that process of being a part of the disability community at birth. It may happen later on in terms of a change in health status. It could happen from an accident. We now have tens of thousands of individuals who are wounded warriors who served our country.
So, it's a very diverse group of people. The commonality of interest is they want everything that everyone else wants. They want a quality of life experience that gives them choices, that gives them an opportunity to dream and find ways to meet those dreams. Whether it's a home of their own, whether it's starting a business, whether it's being able to put money aside and just doing things in their spare time to just have a quality life experience with others.
So, disability is interesting. There are about five different definitions in federal law, just to complicate things further for people. But fundamentally it's about people who face some life challenges in terms of daily living experience. It could relate to sensory disability, sight or hearing. It could relate to mobility and physical disabilities. It could relate to cognitive disability, challenges in terms of intellectual disability. But fundamentally regardless of when or type of disability, what we know today is that people with disabilities want what everyone else wants, which is really to be a full part of their local community, to work, to set goals, to do things that will give them more freedom, give them more independence. And it's the same dreams I think we all have.
08:47 - 09:16
Kaitlyn Kiernan: You are our 2020 FINRA Foundation Ketchum Prize recipient because of all this great work you've done in advocating for and research around the financial challenges of people with disabilities. And this is actually the 30th year anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. How has this landscape changed over the 30 years that you've been involved in the field and the 30 years of the Americans With Disabilities Act?
09:16 - 12:11
Michael Morris: The changes have been quite profound and really have impacted millions of people--parents raising children with disability, working age adults and older individuals with disabilities. The number one change from the Americans With Disabilities Act was really breaking down physical barriers. Making sure that steps for someone with a physical disability doesn't prevent access. Making sure that every type of retail establishment, whether it's a bank, it's a clothing store, it's a food store, that there's free movement and one isn't prevented from physical barriers but it's so much more than that.
And we certainly have seen with the advent of technology accessibility is also about accessibility online, promoting communication accessibility. But the areas that has seen the least amount of change, and it was one of the real opening tenants and goals of the ADA in the act itself, was to promote the advancement of economic self-sufficiency. And now some 30 years later, in this somewhat unique and most challenging time for really, I think, all of us, with COVID-19, what we see are health challenges that have led to financial challenges.
For people with disabilities, they were twice as likely to have been put on furlough or laid off from their jobs. For individuals with disabilities who were defined by the color of their skin, that was close to 50 percent. One in two who were working pre-COVID lost their jobs. So, even pre-COVID though, people with disabilities, more people weren't working than were in the workforce. And when I think back over the 30 years, I had the privilege of being there at the White House when the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed by then President Bush, if I had conjured in my head, "what would life be like 30 years later?" I would have thought people would have advanced more economically and been more a part of the economy.
With COVID, it has put a spotlight again on who are some of the most vulnerable people in this country. Vulnerable because of disability, which affects general health and certainly makes them more susceptible to COVID, but also the issues of economic advancement. And so we've got a long way to go and it's really been my work over so many years to build this awareness and understanding of the financial challenges people with disabilities face, their need for access to credit, their need for responsive and accessible financial services, their need to become savers and investors like everyone else. And that's really what I have put my passion into and my continuing commitment.
12:11 - 12:39
Kaitlyn Kiernan: I can see how you have that progress on the physical barriers first because they're easier to see. OK, there's only stairs, so have a ramp or an elevator. That is something that anyone can see, but it's a lot harder to see and comprehend the full extent of the economic inequality that exists here. So, can you tell us a little bit about the unique challenges that people with disabilities face when it comes to financial security and financial capability?
12:40 - 16:15
Michael Morris: Through some of the research that we've done at National Disability Institute, we've particularly been studying financial behavior of people with disabilities and financial status. One of the things that we began to learn by looking at a lot of data that has been produced by the US Census, by the FDIC and then we were fortunate to do research with support of the FINRA Foundation, is that one in two people with disabilities—working age adults with disabilities—are either unbanked or under banked. That's extraordinary in this day and age, one in two.
What we learned about were significant challenges in terms of access to credit. Without credit it's difficult to get ahead whether that's buying a home or starting a business or even some more basic needs. We've learned that people with disabilities are more likely to be in debt, they're more likely to not have long-term financial goals and are less likely to have some money set aside for the kinds of financial emergencies that we now are all facing due to COVID.
So, we see these as challenges, but we also see solutions. And what we've worked on is the possibilities through policy change and we've also worked on collaboration with the financial community to look at can we develop more responsive products. Can we make sure that products and services are accessible and affordable to people with disabilities? We've looked at and been able to create one solution called ABLE accounts, so Achieving a Better Life Experience account. This provides millions of individuals with disabilities for the first time, the law was passed about five years ago, to put money aside in a savings account. The money can grow tax-free. And then the money can be pulled out for short- or long-term needs to help a person live with greater freedom, greater independence, greater productivity. It can cover qualified disability expenses as varied as covering costs of housing, health care costs that are not covered, going on to higher education and further school. It can cover so many many things.
So it was a unique concept, pretty much modeled after the 529 college savings plan, but was this much broader context that if people with disabilities could set money aside and that money set aside would not count or in any way disengage them from being eligible for a variety of public benefits that provides them health care or provides them access to some housing subsidies and other things, this might be the answer. So, we're early on in it. Close to 100,000 people have opened accounts. We now are seeing a little bit over $500 million being saved and invested in these accounts.
We already have extraordinary stories of people who have been able for the first time to get their own transportation, to be able to move out into their own apartment, not at age 30 to be living with their parents any longer. There are others saving for technology. Some are saving to start their own businesses. So, it's just one example of when we can change public policy to recognize people with disabilities just want the same chance that others have. It's a big deal.
16:16 - 16:36
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Yeah, that sounds like quite a lot of progress but the number of ABLE accounts in such a short amount of time. You mentioned you work with people in the financial services industry and that's a lot of our listeners. What information do you think some of our listeners who work at broker-dealers should really take away from this conversation?
16:36 - 17:55
Michael Morris: Well, I think it's so easy for all of us to stereotype any class of people. I think there are a lot of folks who believe that, "wow this is a community that really shouldn't be a target of our focus for marketing or outreach." Unlikely to want to buy into stocks, bonds, other types of financial vehicles to grow wealth. And the reality is that the disability community is very very diverse. Yes, there is a majority of people who are really struggling financially, but you also have people with disabilities, children with disabilities born into families from every economic class.
And we have learned, and this is another research project that I'm so thankful that the FINRA Foundation is supporting, is we're learning more about the extra costs of living with a disability. So it's giving families with a child with a disability, working age adults with disabilities more reason to set financial goals, to interact with the investor community and think about ways that we can work together to really help people meet those goals whether they're short term or a longer term.
17:55 - 18:07
Kaitlyn Kiernan: I understand that this new study into the added costs of living with disabilities is just about to come out I think the day after we're posting this podcast. Is there anything else you can tease about that new report?
18:07 - 19:56
Michael Morris: We have a webinar coming up that's going to feature the researchers and then some of us at National Disability Institute. I was so interested in this research. I wrote a policy paper on what does this mean to learn more about the extra costs people with disabilities are challenged by, living with. And there really are a variety of ways that people could benefit more through policy change, whether that's more people being eligible for ABLE accounts or more money being able to be deposited and in ABLE accounts per year. Whether it's changes to the tax code that recognizes that people with disabilities do have some significant differences in terms of needs and perhaps those extra costs should be deductible, and a person could then better equalize their financial status.
There's lots of things we still need to learn. I think this research that the FINRA Foundation has supported us and others and is really in its infancy, we have a lot more to learn. And the more we learn we then can begin to creatively think about solutions. So, I do think in the coming years as we have really cast a spotlight on financial behavior of people with disabilities, I believe they're going to be new products. There's going to be more outreach in a proactive sense by those in the investor community to say, "wow, this may be a segment of the population we really need to think about how do we serve, how do we serve them well?" Is it different products, is it a different approach to helping them understand the products that are available. I think there's a lot that is going to happen over the next 10 years.
19:57 - 20:07
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And we'll link to the information on the webinar and then when it is available the new study in our show notes. For your research over the years, what has surprised you the most?
20:08 - 21:30
Michael Morris: The biggest surprise for me is the amazing level of optimism by so many people with disabilities we've interviewed either individually or part of focus groups. And we ask them about their financial status and rather than something that you might think, "well I'm never going to escape." There really have been a lot of discussion of we can do better. I want to work. I want to save. I want to be an investor. That's been very very positive. I think the other part of our research that has really been something I didn't expect is as I've talked with the financial community, which is also a large community banks and all types of financial service companies, the thirst for information, the interest in learning more about who makes up this very diverse population, how can we serve them better, how can we develop partnerships at a community level with disability-related nonprofit community based organizations? That surprised me because I think the stereotype point of view is, well bottom of the economic ladder, we're maybe empathetic but I'm not sure professionally there's anything we can do. And the actual discussions have been the exact opposite.
21:32 - 21:45
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's good to hear. And I think you touched on it a little bit earlier, but wanted to talk about the interplay between race, poverty and disability. How do these all tie in together?
21:46 - 25:09
Michael Morris: Great question. The interplay of race, poverty and disability is a very important subject for all of us to understand. I think too much of the way the media presents issues is they're compartmentalized. So, you might be see a news story about people of color. You might see a separate story about poverty. You might see a separate story about people with disabilities. But we all have multiple identities and we have been studying with our research the intersection of race and disability, whether that be with the people who are Black or the Latino population. The intersection with disability has also shown us greater challenges, less opportunities more examples of discrimination.
And so, we're trying with some of the research we're now doing to help people understand with the numbers. The household wealth in this country pre-COVID, it was going up. It was approaching $90,000 for the typical family in terms of net assets. For people with disabilities who were not people of color as well, that net worth is as low as just under $15,000. But when we explore it further and draw the intersectionality with race, in other words people of color and disability, that net worth shrinks all the way to under $1,500 total.
So, we know there are equity issues, but in our view, it's about opening up opportunity. It's not about handouts. It's about a hand up. It's about providing opportunities for people with disabilities intersecting with people of color to be a part of the next workforce with new sets of skills, with new technology abilities that are so much a part of so many jobs, that people with disabilities have opportunities to own homes, another great means of growing one's assets and net wealth. That people with disabilities have access to funds that help them live out their dream to be entrepreneurs to start businesses.
So, I do think where we struggle as an organization that has in its workforce people with disabilities who are also people of color, people across very diverse backgrounds and identities, we're trying to work harder to find that intersection with communities of color. In these times right now, I'm hopeful that we can build some pilot programs that help communities look as inclusive as possible. There's a tremendous amount of money in the philanthropic community now, banks and others going towards, "we want to work with black led organizations." And I fully understand that. But I would love to see that there's also a discussion of this intersectionality, where there is also people who are Black and people who are brown, but they also are challenge in pretty significant numbers as well by disability. How do we overcome those multiple barriers? how do we work together to find solutions?
25:09 - 25:24
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That sounds like great work. I hope to hear how that goes in the future. You've talked about a lot of your work advocating to inform public policy. Are there any potentially really impactful changes in your view that have yet to be made?
25:25 - 27:21
Michael Morris: The first that comes to mind for me always is the one I mentioned early on in this conversation and that is this long standing historical problem, challenge of public benefits, major needs people with disabilities need to survive, health care for one other, types of basic supports that you're only eligible for if you stay poor. And the origin of that from so many years ago was that government wanted to limit who it would help with a basic social safety net to only the poorest of the poor. But that doesn't recognize some of the things we've talked about already.
You can be poor and not disabled but when you're poor and disabled you have these extra costs. So, these standards of this low amount of resources you can have, either income or assets, makes no sense at all. And hopefully this new research supported by the FINRA Foundation which we're going to unveil over the next 30 days will help people sort of say, "wait a minute we need to rethink some of this."
I think a second area is finding the motivations, the inducements, maybe tax advantages so that the business community embraces more inclusive workforces and other ways they recognize the value of people with disabilities being in their workforce.
And, I guess, third would be to continue to expand who is eligible for ABLE accounts, not just age of onset of disability prior to age 26, why not 46 or 50 so that people who have these extra costs have a means to save and still hold on to that safety net of different government public benefits.
27:22 - 27:26
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And just to wrap up, what leaves you with the most hope for the future?
27:27 - 29:50
Michael Morris: The most hope for the future that I have is when I frequently talk with ABLE account owners. These are people who never dreamed of saving. These are individuals, particularly for me it's working age adults with disabilities, who are struggling. They're struggling with the extra costs of just having a fair quality of life experience, but they're struggling with is really trying to get ahead. COVID hasn't made it any easier for sure. I think what I've been impressed by is the dreams people have who have opened ABLE accounts. Dreams of living in a home of their own. Dreams of having their own means of transportation. In this COVID environment no one wants to get on public transportation, mass transportation. They want to have the means to get from point A to Point B, even if it's just to visit friends or family.
It's ideas that I've heard from people with disabilities like all of us. How many of us have dreamed about, "what if I could start my own business? What would it be like if I was my own boss and I determined my own fate in terms of the great American Dream of making money and not only supporting myself, but also hiring other people with or without disabilities and being a vibrant part of the economy." So, I think the ABLE account owners, as I continue to talk to them, represent really a voice and a face of disability that is optimistic about the future because they recognize that savings and investment are key strategies to get ahead.
And for them, they are living that strategy and they have very specific, defined dreams. And I think it's what they do. They’re stories of resilience. They’re stories of actually living their dreams are going to help other people with disabilities want to go down the same path and it's going to help all of us with and without disabilities to say, "wow, I love that enthusiasm I love that positive thinking." It's really something that we all should value, and we should all embrace.
29:51 - 30:12
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Well thank you, Michael, so much for joining us for this episode of FINRA Unscripted and congratulations once again on winning the 2020 Ketcham Prize. For our listeners, if you have any questions for future guests or ideas for future episodes you can let us know. You can email us at FINRAunscripted@FINRA.org. Until next time
30:12 – 30:49
30:18 - 30:46
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30:46 – 30:51
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