Banking

People with disabilities struggle to save. Purple says it has a solution.

Christian Ciocca, who has Down syndrome, faced a dilemma: The handful of hours a week he spends working at a Panera Bread lower his Supplemental Security Income benefits. He and his family had to weigh the social advantages of his holding a job against the higher payments if he were unemployed.

His brother, John, has founded a mobile bank for people with disabilities that lets them keep their jobs and their benefits.

“People with disabilities … are still able to participate in the financial system,” says John Ciocca (left), founder and CEO of the mobile bank Purple, with his brother, Christian. “Right now they are discouraged from doing so because of the limits imposed on them.”

To remain eligible for monthly SSI payments — which averaged $585 for recipients in January — a person’s assets can’t exceed $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a couple, including funds held in a bank account. And the more “countable” income one receives, including wages, the lower SSI benefits will be.

“This discourages them from saving money or applying for side work, because any income will disrupt or remove those payments,” John Ciocca said. “As it stands now, they are more likely to be poor, unemployed and underbanked.”

The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014 offers one way forward. It allows states to create tax-advantaged savings programs where people with disabilities can store up to $100,000 in an ABLE account that doesn’t affect SSI eligibility. Withdrawals for qualified expenses, including health care, housing and assistive technology, don’t count as taxable income.

John Ciocca, who is a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University and lives in Bonita Springs, Fla., founded a social network called youBelong for people with disabilities in 2017. In 2019 he came up with the idea for the mobile bank Purple, which has 25 customers to date.

Purple currently offers a checking account and debit card provided by The Bancorp Bank, a $6.2 billion-asset institution in Wilmington, Del. But Ciocca has plans to integrate a Purple-branded ABLE savings account into the same product, a type of account that many people he is targeting don’t know exists. In an interview, he discusses how Purple originated and how it will serve customers with disabilities. The interview has been edited for clarity.

How did Purple grow out of youBelong?

JOHN CIOCCA: After my family moved from New Jersey to Florida I wanted a way for Christian to connect with the friends he left behind and to meet new people. YouBelong has also allowed us to tap in and hear what [community members] talk about. The one thing that came up over and over, especially from parents, was managing their children’s finances, opening bank accounts and applying for benefits. Last summer, Purple branched off as a separate product. Our ultimate goal is building a suite of financial products that empower people with disabilities to achieve financial independence.

How will Purple solve that problem?

CIOCCA: A lot of people in the disability community don’t know that ABLE accounts exist. That gives us the opportunity to attach a Purple-branded ABLE savings account to our product. Because we would control both accounts, we can automatically invest anything that exceeds that $2,000 limit in the ABLE account. And when people spend money on our card, we can optimize from where we pull the funds — from the checking account if they are buying a TV or the savings account if they are paying rent or buying a wheelchair.

What does Purple offer now?

CIOCCA: Right now, there is nothing too different [from other challenger banks]. So why would you sign up today? Once we get everything in line we will make the experience seamless for families and individuals so we can optimize where the money is going and what accounts they are spending from. They can apply for a job and still receive their benefits payments. Someone like my brother should be feeling included and participating in society.

In the past few weeks, now that we have launched the card, we’ve been reaching out to states about working with us. We are trying to move quickly because a few states haven’t launched ABLE accounts yet, so if we can partner with one of those they might be the most receptive. Our goal is to build plan management [handling bookkeeping and oversight for its ABLE account] in house so we can run it end-to-end on our own [rather than outsourcing the tasks to a plan manager].

People with disabilities are still spenders and savers and investors and borrowers. They are still able to participate in the financial system. Right now they are discouraged from doing so because of the limits imposed on them. It’s our goal to offer products so they can have lunch with friends, set aside money for a purchase, invest and open a credit card.

How will you make money beyond interchange fees?

CIOCCA: Interchange is off the debit card. ABLE accounts have annual fees and a small investment management fee, so introducing an ABLE account opens up a whole new avenue of revenue.

Why the name Purple?

CIOCCA: It’s Christian’s favorite color. Purple is frequently used in the color schemes of disability advocacy organizations. The color purple has traditionally represented the values that we hold closely: wealth, inclusion and creativity. And one of the cool things I’ve seen is the color purple only appears in nature in small batches. It’s rare to find a flower or plant that’s purple. It’s fitting for individuals with a disability — they’re unique.



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