Over 69 million people in the United States received SSI and/or SSDI in September of 2021. Only about three million of these beneficiaries are children, so that leaves sixty-six million adults receiving monthly cash benefits.
If we look at the 2020 census data, this means about 25% of the American adult population receives Social Security benefits. Many millions of these people rely on a representative payee to partially or wholly manage their finances – making these Americans completely dependent on others to decide their financial future.
But rather than expecting and requiring people who need support with finances to be completely dependent on the person managing their finances, I believe in shooting for financial interdependence.
So what is that, exactly?
Interdependence is a principle of the disability justice movement, but it hasn’t made much movement in the area of finances.
Rather than teaching people who require financial support to be dependent on others for it, we should be enabling independence in areas of people’s strengths, facilitating growth opportunities for new skills and supporting people where a particular skill set is lacking.
For finances, this looks like supporting the person in learning and practicing their strengths with money. Are they able to carry a wallet? Great. Are they a rock star at creating a budget? Awesome. Lean into those strengths. Then, determine together what assistance is needed and create a plan to ensure those areas are supported by a trusted person. Many people have financial goals, and these can be built into an interdependent support plan as well.
In my experience as a case manager, people with representative payees often had financial goals; however, they weren’t taken seriously.
Here are a few examples of people I worked with as a case manager that went from financial dependence to financial interdependence (all names and personal details have been changed).
A young woman named Alex (name changed) and I began working together with me as her case manager. She lived in a community residential setting (also known as group home), received Social Security, and had a representative payee/guardian. Each weekday she went to a day program where she met up with friends, did skillbuilding activities, took classes and went out on the town.
Here’s how her finances were when we started working together:
- Social Security directly deposits funds into Alex’s bank account (which she cannot access without her guardian or staff)
- Guardian paid all of Alex’s bills
- Guardian mailed a check for $108 each month to Alex
- Alex & staff cashed check at bank
- Alex’s staff held onto her cash
- Home staff handed day program staff $5 for Alex every day
- Alex could request to purchase something at home, but it had to be in cash (or she had to purchase a gift card with cash, then make an online purchase)
- Any purchase over $50 Alex wanted to make required the approval of me and her guardian
Now this all sounds quite convoluted and, to be clear, it is. There’s a complete lack of agency in this process, and unfortunately, it is typical for a sizable amount of Americans.
Alex had financial goals that were not taken into account because her financial status was looked at in an either/or manner: independent or dependent. Interdependence was not taken into account and forced her into complete dependence, which she rightfully was upset about.
After looking at this plan through the scope of financial interdependence, Alex and her team began taking steps for her to take over more financial responsibilities. We started with:
- Listening to Alex’s goals, concerns and what she did and did not like about the current set up
- Understanding what skills she currently has and which skills she would like to begin working on
Alex let us know she wanted more spending money each month, wanted to pay her own bills, had a hard time keeping track of cash, and it was difficult to not spend all of her money at the beginning of the month. With that in mind, this is where we started:
- Alex and her guardian set up a Venmo account
- Alex got the Venmo debit card and app
- Alex’s guardian deposited money to her Venmo account each week rather than sending a monthly check
- To start off, Alex and home staff would check her Venmo balance each day and discuss her weekly budget
- Alex and her team reviewed her current budget
- She decided to cut her budget in certain places in order to increase spending cash
- Alex also became interested in pursuing employment to make more money
- Alex began paying her phone bill every month
- This may seem like a small step, but it was huge. Each month Alex used her Venmo card to pay her phone bill. She paid her bill ahead of time each month and became much more interested in how she was using the rest of her budget.
By focusing on financial interdependence, Alex still had safety supports in place but was able to have agency in her finances. It led to her pursuing (successfully, I might add) employment, holding her own money and making her own purchases, as well as reducing a significant amount of anxiety in her life. Not knowing when money will arrive as well as not having it for the last half of the month is incredibly stressful.
Another person I worked with was on the opposite end of this experience, Fawzia. She had a very negative experience with a representative payee and was able to terminate the relationship. Upon not having a rep payee anymore, Fawzia wanted to ensure complete independence in her finances so she would never need a representative payee again.
This either/or thinking we do with dependence or independence put her in a tough situation. When I met Fawzia as her case manager and got to know her, I learned she was in a significant amount of debt and taking on more debt to pay her current debt. She rented a home and worked, and received some Social Security benefits, so there was a lot to keep track of.
Fawzia had the best intentions but stated she was scared to reach out for help, as admitting needing any help with finances typically means dependence rather than independence. Fawzia explored financial independence. She did not get a representative payee, but instead had a family member and me assist her with financial planning.
- Created a spreadsheet of each debt she owed and the due dates
- Created a budget with income and expenses
- Created goals to get out of debt and save money
- Paid bills and reviewed her financial plan with the family member each week
When I asked Fawzia if there was anything she wanted to save money for, she stated she wanted to buy a house but it probably wouldn’t happen. Well, it’s several years later but Fawzia is debt-free and ready to buy her first home with a downpayment.
The need for tech
I’ve been going on about financial interdependence a lot now, but it’s something I am incredibly passionate about. It is very overlooked by most people who provide support to the neurodivergent community and by companies that create fintech products as well. This needs to change. Financial empowerment is for everyone, but a large portion of our population lacks access to it. I believe tech can help change that.
What are people using now?
The current options for accessible fintech (financial technology) are bleak. Due to this, the most common ways of managing money interdependently are not highly tech-related. It should also be noted this is not due to lack of want for tech: it is simply not available. Here are the top contenders in the order of popularity for managing finances interdependently:
- Community Bank debit cards
- Children’s finance apps
Cash is most commonly used for personal spending money, particularly for people with representative payees. Cash can be easily withdrawn, quickly counted without having to log into a profile, and handed off easily to different people.
The downside of cash is it is easily lost, cannot be replaced, and cannot be used online. Using cash only as a means of personal spending money typically creates dependence rather than interdependence for people.
Community bank debit cards
Community banks are where most people I worked with as a case manager banked. Community bakers often build a relationship with the customer and ensure accessibility, especially if the same customer is coming in on a routine schedule.
Community banks don’t offer any tech other than debit cards and a banking app for customers, which can be an issue. People with executive functioning difficulties may lose their debit cards — including myself. However, most community banks can print a replacement card on the spot. This eliminates any time waiting for a new card and the lost or stolen card can immediately be canceled.
Venmo debit cards
At the moment, Venmo is the best technology I have seen to support financial interdependence. Anyone can send money to the user’s account, and the user can immediately see and spend their balance via their debit card. Automatic deposits to the Venmo account can also be set up on a recurring basis, making it easier for everyone involved to stay on a financial schedule.
Venmo is far from perfect when it comes to meeting every need, however. I can’t count the number of times a debit card has been lost and it’s taken weeks for the card to be replaced.
Furthermore, Venmo is an attack vector for the most vulnerable of the neurodivergent community. Unlike community banks, or even cash, there is little a representative payee can do to prevent funds from being distributed to or from the account holder.
Some in the neurodivergent community struggle with impulse control – of which Venmo does little to inhibit based on its business model – which can lead to sending money to strangers or receiving funds after solicitation. And there are few options that Venmo users have to reverse those payments in either direction.
Children’s finance apps
These apps allow people to manage their personal finances through an app on their phone and receive assistance from a “parent.” The apps typically have a debit card linked to the account. They are obviously geared towards children, so they are not typically appealing or applicable to most adults.
Language also matters. A parent, in a legal sense, has control over their children’s benefits until their child’s 18th birthday – unless they become a representative payee. The person receiving benefits is in charge of their own finances (even if, in practice, they are completely dependent on their representative payee).
One startup in a position to help
INAMO, a pre-seed company, recently announced they are launching a payment wristband this month. INAMO’s marketing message is “gift that special someone a fashionable wristband with an accompanying personalized video message.”
With love, they may have missed their target market. I’m not aware of many people that want a gift card wristband mailed to them along with a video message sent to their phone, but I am aware of millions of people that would love to have their monthly spending cash on their wrist.
How INAMO could be used as is
With the current setup of INAMO, here are the current benefits:
- Pay via contactless payment (using wristband)
- Receive a daily text message with the balance (no more remembering to log in!)
- Wristband is waterproof
- Wristband appears sensory-friendly & comes in dozens of styles
- No more asking a family member of staff to hold the debit card, as you can wear it
- No overdrawn account as it is a gift card
- No login, pin, or password to make purchases
Now you may be thinking, we already have smartwatches. This is a less technical version. Why are you so excited? I’m excited because it is much more accessible! INAMO is:
- Less expensive
- More sensory-friendly
- Requires significantly less dexterity to operate
- Requires less executive functioning to operate
- Way more durable
INAMO has a lot going for it, and I am excited about the launch. I’m hoping to see people in the neurodivergent community get access to these, especially people that go to and from day programs or live in community residential settings. Historically, this group of people has the least access to their own money.
What INAMO still needs
For this technology to be implemented within these communities, a few more things need to happen to make it more of a seamless transition:
- Automatic deposits on custom dates: rep payees can schedule recurring deposits for each person they work with
- Backup bracelets: It would be great to receive 2 bracelets, so if one is lost or broken another can be used immediately by the owner
- Balance request: ability to check balance on-demand in addition to daily balance messages
Accessibility in fintech is needed, and INAMO is a start. At the moment, fintech focuses on the neurotypical or non-disabled market and is missing up to 25% of the American population alone.
For more fintech companies to become accessible, more awareness and encouragement of healthy financial interdependence needs to take place at every level supporting the neurodivergent community: family members, staff, government agencies, banks and the companies creating technology.
Disclosure: Keeri Tramm is married to Holden Page, Director of FinLedger.