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Finances and Politics; Cost of Autism; Stedman Graham Speaks Out

Aired April 7, 2012 - 09:30   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST: And good morning, everyone, I'm Christine Romans. Political battle lines being drawn across your kitchen table, how you feel about your money will decide this elections.

The cost of autism, both emotionally and financially, you will hear from one family who went deep into debt to care for their children.

And Stedman Graham, you know him best as Oprah's partner. But he says his identity is more than that.

But first, both President Obama and Mitt Romney acknowledge a recovery is under way and that's about all they agree on when it comes to your money. The president called economic fairness the defining issue of our time.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In this country, broad-based prosperity has never trickled down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class.


ROMANS: The president argues he is here to protect Medicare, Social Security and middle class jobs. This is what the president is banking on. A recent CNN ORC poll finds President Bush and the Republicans are still held more responsible for our economic problems than President Obama and the Democrats.

Will Cain and John Avlon are CNN contributors.

Will, Mitt Romney sharpened his message this week, trying to say that government needs to get out of the way. So does that resonate?

WILL CAIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think he has a willing audience. I will say this. I think we too often treat so many economic indicators, for example, unemployment, as like the political scoreboard plus one negative one. What's more important is how people feel. And that sounds amorphous, how people feel. Sounds vague. People -- some college professors have quantified this, take-home pay, what your paycheck looks like after inflation and taxes.


ROMANS: (Inaudible) going down.

CAIN: It's been going down and it has a strong correlate to how you do -- how well you do politically.

So I don't know if Mitt Romney has the answer to what Americans need, because willing audience, ready to listen.

ROMANS: Well, what he's saying -- what Mitt Romney is trying to say is, look, this could be so -- don't let this president squander our recovery. And the president is saying, look, we have a recovery and it is because of our policies. That's -- those are the two messages they're trying to sell.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Those are two messages, and Mitt Romney's had to pivot his message a bit, or will have to, to acknowledge the improving recovery, saying, look, we may be moving in the right direction but not fast enough and that's because of this president's failed policies. That's the argument he'll make.

But, look, it is all about the middle class at the end of the day. Elections are won by the candidate who connects best with moderates and the middle class. That's how elections are won in America. And the problem is the middle class has been getting squeezed, not just through this Great Recession but through -- for decades.

ROMANS: I think -- I think squeezed is too kind a word, actually.

AVLON: Well, OK. Let's make it more valid. The point is they've been -- the forgotten middle class has been feeling that -- and reality -- been getting less out of their paycheck, even after the Bush tax cuts, for a long, long time. And right now the fault lines of this -- of the whole election are centered on the middle class.

The president set that in terms of the debate and his speech in Kansas, saying that he was the candidate who could strengthen and grow the middle class, that that's -- you heard him say, that's how American go. And president -- and Candidate Romney, Governor Romney, saying, look, I am going to be fighting for the middle class. That's what he made his statement about the other thing (ph).


ROMANS: Let's listen -- let's listen to Candidate Romney.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The president came here yesterday and railed against arguments no one is making and criticized policies no one is proposing. It's one of his favorite strategies, setting up straw men to distract us from his record. And while I understand the president doesn't want to run on his record, he can't run from his record either.


ROMANS: What do you think about that?

CAIN: Well so we both recognize that the middle class and how they feel about their pocketbook will be so determinative in this election, I think you have two very clear messages on how they can -- how politicians can help the middle class out.

One, as defined by economic rights and entitlements, that will be the Democratic President Obama's message, what can I provide you to help you out versus economic liberty, let's free up the economy, see how it can grow on its own and allow that to help you.

I would say this. Mitt Romney also said if this is an election about who hands the most out, who can give you the most, don't vote for me.

AVLON: All right. Look, I mean, this is -- this is -- these are narrative that have been recycled in some form, based on philosophical divides between the two parties, that have gone on for decades. Bit I think the narratives distort the reality a little bit.

I don't think the president's talking at the end of the day about a government centered society and he certainly doesn't, as sometimes is discussed, have this diabolical plot to undermine freedom in America. What they're talking about, the Democratic view is, look, we have -- government has a role to play in strengthening the middle class. And when the middle class succeeds, America succeeds.

ROMANS: I asked Van Jones this week -- remember Van Jones, the first victim of the Tea Party really, Van Jones, who used to be a special green jobs guru for the president. I asked him how do we have a middle class that's resurgent if we don't fix the jobs -- the housing situation and the student loan situation. Listen to what he said.


VAN JONES, GREEN JOBS GURU: What used to be the pathway from poverty into the middle class, homeownership and college have become the trapdoors that fall from the middle class into poverty because of these underwater mortgages.

One-quarter of our homes are underwater. And the incredible cost of going to college and kids graduating into no jobs, you wind up -- the two pathways out become the trap doors down.


ROMANS: So if you talk about the kitchen table, that's at the kitchen table. And I don't see -- I don't see anybody.

AVLON: Well, to be fair, I mean, the administration has provided some efforts to take people out of underwater loan mortgages. They've tried some efforts to reduce college loan debt. Those have been largely opposed by the Republican Party.

Mitt Romney in particular believes perfectly legitimate philosophical point of view, let the market work it out. And you can argue that Van Jones actually is saying this trap door was created because it was too easy for people who couldn't afford to buy houses to get loans to buy houses.

ROMANS: Right.

CAIN: There you go. There you go.

ROMANS: Stick around, guys, we were talking about gas prices, because this is really important, there are near-record highs and as this presidential election heats up, Vice President Joe Biden has looked into a crystal ball this week. And after 12 minutes of analysis of what's going to happen, why gas prices are high, he tells you what's going to happen next.

Plus, the high cost of autism sent this family into $67,000 of debt four years go. There they are. How are they doing now? We're going to ask them next on YOUR BOTTOM LINE.


ROMANS: I don't need to tell you that rising gas prices are hitting American families hard. The average family consumes 1,100 gallons of gas every year. So go back to the start of the Obama presidency when a gallon cost about $1.85, the average family was paying around $2,000 a year for their gas bill.

Today, if you look at gas prices near record highs, the price per year at the pump is about $4,300 a year, if we stuck around this level. That's an extra $2,300 out of disposable income that most Americans simply can't afford.

Little wonder that seven in 10 Americans say rising gas prices are causing a hardship. The gas prices don't stay static. In fact, they're expected to go higher as the peak driving season kicks in. Maybe they'll go down. Who knows? But Vice President Joe Biden hit the trail this week. He promised gas prices are coming down eventually.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oil prices will come down. Gas prices will come down. Whether it is in two months or a year, whenever they do, they will come down. Sure as the devil, they will come down.


ROMANS: Sure as the devil. Democrats are hoping they will come down, right? CNN contributors Will Cain and John Avlon are back.

Will, are you surprised he is making this bold prediction? Or -- I mean, I think gas prices are going to come down, too, and then they might go back up --


CAIN: I do, too.

ROMANS: -- and then they might come back down again.

CAIN: So it raises the question, what's your point, Joe? I mean, I don't understand. As a conservative I have gone on TV and said the president doesn't have a lot of control over short-term gas prices. So I'm not going to malign him when they're high. I'm sure not going to give him credit when they come back down inevitably. So I don't really know what Biden's point is. (Inaudible) belly aching?


ROMANS: But if they come back down, it takes down -- we said $2,300 extra this year. If those gas prices come down, it takes some heat off of the incumbent.

AVLON: Absolutely, and you can tell the Obama administration and the Obama campaign are nervous about the impact of higher gas prices.

There's no question because it does go to that pocketbook that affects the way a lot of people vote, and it goes to the heart of what -- how the middle class is feeling when they go out to the voting booth. So this is a real issue. And even though presidents don't affect the price of oil --

ROMANS: In the near term.

AVLON: -- in the short-term, most Americans actually feel that they do.

ROMANS: The bottom line, you shouldn't believe any politician who's telling you gas prices will do this right now, and I am going to make it happen because they can't.

AVLON: That's right, and you know, you really shouldn't believe any politician that sets a benchmark and says elect me and you will have $2.50 gas.

CAIN: Agreed.

ROMANS: Well, all those people are out of the race, right?

AVLON: Oh, not yet.


ROMANS: Yes. I mean, I always keep saying that a $2.50 gas price, you -- a global recession would do that but no president wants to be the owner of a global recession. So final thoughts on gas prices, I mean, do gas prices decide this election or does -- do jobs and the direction of the country? CAIN: I think gas prices can have a huge effect on this election because of what we talked about earlier, take-home paycheck, it takes a big chunk out of your take-home paycheck, and makes you feel bad about where you sit today.

AVLON: It is a major factor along with jobs, and for the Obama administration it's an added complication because part of their success story is the rise of the American auto industry and this is the flip side of that.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, guys.

Coming up next, the high cost of autism. When we met this family four years ago, they were $67,000 in debt. We wanted to check back in with them to see how they're doing today. We'll talk to them next.


ROMANS: The CDC now estimates one in 88 children has autism. That's a 23 percent increase from 2009. Those are just numbers. We want you to meet the people behind those numbers. Families like the Iallonardis, who we met first four years ago.


MICHELE IALLONARDI, MOTHER OF AUTISTIC CHILDREN: All three of our boys were diagnosed with autism. Jackson was diagnosed at two and a half. The twins were diagnosed right around their -- a little after their first birthday. So actually all three of our children were diagnosed within one year's time.

RALPH IALLONARDI, FATHER OF AUTISTIC CHILDREN: At the beginning you are just numb. And you just think, OK, three kids with autism.

M. IALLONARDI: Where do you go from here?

ROMANS: They were $67,000 into debt. So how are they doing today? Michelle and Ralph Iallonardi join me now from their home in Hauppauge, New York. Welcome to the program. So nice to see you guys again.

Since we aired your story, one of your twins, Luca, was declassified, and is now developing along. You know, you credit a lot of that early therapy with money, money that you spent and early intervention. How is he and everyone else doing right now?

M. IALLONARDI: This is Luca right here. He is eight, and Bennett, they're twins. They're both eight years old and they're both doing very well in school --

ROMANS: And they love each other.

M. IALLONARDI: They were very fortunate, yes, very fortunate to have therapy so early. They're both in third grade. Luca is a piano player. He is doing really well with his musical talent. And Bennett is doing great also. He is doing -- he likes to do acting and singing and he likes to play a lot of different things. So they have come very far. Jackson, that's our 10-year-old, he is right here. Jackson, can you say hi?


M. IALLONARDI: Jackson is doing well, too, but he is completely dependent, you know, on us for all aspects of his daily living.

ROMANS: In 2008 you were $67,000 in debt. How financially are you doing now as you deal with this?

M. IALLONARDI: Well, we're in the same boat, except we're more in debt. Jackson is currently home schooled because we just haven't been able to get him into an appropriate program. There aren't a lot of programs for children who have needs like Jackson, and the ones that exist are very small.

You know, they fit 24 children so you have to wait for children to age out for a space to open up. So Jackson is currently home schooled, which means I am unable to work, so now we have been 10 years with just one income.

And our debt is higher. We owe about -- you know, aside from our mortgage, we have about -- instead of 67, we're at 92,000 instead because we use a lot of that money as an income source basically to help pay for all of the extra stuff that we need for the boys.

ROMANS: Ralph, you work six days a week, is that right?

R. IALLONARDI: Just about, yes.

ROMANS: And so the bills, I mean, the bills -- clearly you must have insurance that helps. There are state programs, of course, there's taxpayer assistance as well, but, I mean, when you have two children on the spectrum, I mean, what kind of bills do you have? Where is the money going? Is it tutors? Is it speech therapy? Tell me a little bit about how the money is going out the door.

M. IALLONARDI: Well, we still -- we still pay for private speech therapy and occupational therapy for Bennett, and Jackson still needs a lot of just extra things that aren't covered. Jackson has medical needs that aren't covered always by insurance.

Jackson still needs Pull-Ups and wipes and baby food to help him get his supplements in, so those are extra expenses that you typically wouldn't have when you have a 10-year-old.

ROMANS: Do you see something that you think you need, you know, sometimes you don't want to deal with an insurance form, you want to deal right now with -- getting on with the services that you need and I think that's what's so frustrating sometimes for so many families.

Michele and Ralph, it's so nice to meet you. We to want check in with you again. Thanks for letting us into your kitchen table for the morning. We really wish the best to you.

M. IALLONARDI: Thank you.

R. IALLONARDI: Thank you.'s Poppy Harlow is here now with a look at the overall cost of autism, because you can see just from one family how those costs add up, Poppy.

I think the Iallonardi family really brings it home for folks because when you look at these numbers, it is hard to believe. But they're real. These numbers just came out. The cost of autism to the United States every single year is projected to be $137 billion. That's according to research funded by Autism Speaks.

When you talk about the cost per person, somewhere in the range of $1.4 to $2.3 million, (inaudible) the severe end of the spectrum it will cost $2.3 million to raise that child. And again, it doesn't go away in adulthood generally. When you talk about how much families with kids that have autism make, they make less than the average family.

You just heard it from that family, generally 28 percent less. And when you talk about mothers trying to raise these children, they make 56 percent less than families that have children without health issues. So that's just another burden that they have to bear. So a lot of people say, well, doesn't insurance, Christine, help out? Doesn't insurance just cover the covet the cost of autism?

It does not cover the full cost. I met with families that have kids with autism. They still bear big burden. You've got 29 states right now in the United States where insurance does cover autism treatment. Also you've got to remember that once these kids are adults, they're still dealing with autism.

So what happens when they're out of the education system? How are they being paid for? A lot of the funding comes from the state, from the federal government. But residential expenses, group homes, where are they going to live, how are they going to be taken care of at home, that's a big expense.

And then also, when you talk about working, how does a adult with autism work? Well, a study was done in 2008 of 200 families, 74 percent of the adults with autism were unemployed; 74 percent of the ones with jobs worked less than 20 hours per week.

ROMANS: All right. Poppy Harlow, thanks for running through the numbers for us. Reeling through this diagnosis, then, many families suddenly find they have to become financial experts. Michael Beloff (ph) is a special needs financial planner with Barnum Financial Group. It's an office of MetLife. He's also the father of a 14-year-old autistic son. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL BELOFF (PH), BARNUM FINANCIAL GROUP: Thank you, Christine. Thanks for having me. ROMANS: Nice to have your expertise, because, you know, here you are, you're trying to be the CFO of the family, you're trying to run the medical side of all of the diagnosis and treatment. So let's talk about the money here. What is the latest MetLife survey, 79 percent have not set up a trust to preserve their government benefits.

Seventy-seven percent have not written a letter of intent. Sixty-seven percent have not identified a trustee. Fifty-one percent have not identified a guardian. There clearly is a planning gap. What is the single biggest mistake the families make in terms of the financial part of an autism diagnosis?

BELOFF (PH): I think a lot of it is the paralysis that sometimes they feel. When the diagnosis is gotten, they circle around the family first. Then they'll start bringing in the medical and the school experts.

And I think the third part of it that gets left out is bringing in the other professional team, the legal, financial and tax people. It's so important to get those ducks in a row. As you're doing your planning not only for your child's diagnosis and medical but also long-term planning needs.

ROMANS: I've been learning so much about a trust for your special needs child. Tell me why it's important to set up a trust?

BELOFF (PH): Well, prior to the age of 18, most things that are -- most services are provided by the local school district. Once the child turns 18, the child is -- may then be eligible for state and federal benefits, based on the child's assets and the child's income. In most states, a child would have to have less than $2,000 at the age of 18 in order to get government benefits like (inaudible) --


ROMANS: Well, imagine Grandma gives a little inheritance to all of the children, suddenly, that could knock your kid out of eligibility for government benefits?

BELOFF (PH): Absolutely. So the government has allowed for a vehicle called a special needs trust. And so as long as it's set up appropriately by an appropriate attorney and the money is placed in there, and it's never given directly to the child but used to buy goods and services, that won't count against that child's eligibility dollars.

ROMANS: Right. Oh, that's excellent advice. Families like the Iallonardis, who are grateful for them to -- for selling them -- telling us their story, I mean, it's day-to-day finances that they're really struggling with. And planning ahead really isn't a main priority. How do they plan ahead?

BELOFF (PH): Well, I think you start looking at what you can do, both from a cost standpoint and things you can do that are free. I think it's directly important to make sure that proper estate planning is done. So having a will -- ROMANS: Most people don't do that. Most people in general don't do this. And then if you're dealing with a special needs situation, you're -- I mean, you feel like you're playing defense just trying to get the speech therapist in the house. You've got to really think about these big issues.

BELOFF (PH): You really do because there are two pieces that are very important. Number one, a will will decide or help decide who the guardian of your child will be while they're under 18. If you don't make that decision in a will, the state will come in and make it for you.

In addition, if you don't have a will, the state will automatically give a portion of your dollars to your child. And, of course, as we just talked about, that could interfere with their government benefits as an adult. So getting a will oftentimes is the very first step they should have.

ROMANS: We're going to put all this advice on our blog, too, so thank you so much. Michael Beloff (ph), nice to meet you.

BELOFF (PH): Nice to meet you, too.

ROMANS: More of my conversations with van Jones and Stedman graham, next.


ROMANS: I wanted to let you in on a couple of conversations I had this week. You know Stedman Graham best as Oprah Winfrey's longtime partner but he's also a successful businessman and the author of a new book called "Identity: Your Passport to Success."

I asked him if there is still opportunity in America.


STEDMAN GRAHAM, AUTHOR: If you're thinking in the old way, if you stay in that box that you're in, if you say you can't, you can't. If you look at the glass half-empty as opposed to half-full -- I mean this is the greatest country in the world. If you can't make it in America, then you're not doing anything. You know, you're stuck.

And so to be able to change your thinking is about to be able to change your learning, to be able to adjust to the new world order, to be able to, you know, adjust to the new normal. And you've got to know technology, you've got to be able to work on yourself every single day. You've got to reinvent yourself.

I don't care how -- what age you are. You can be 65 or 70. You still have to develop a process for continuous improvement every single day because you're still living.


ROMANS: And speaking of reinvention and improvement, I interviewed Van Jones about his new book "Rebuild the Dream." I asked him what is the best piece of advice he ever received.


JONES: I'll take two pieces of advice, and maybe I'm breaking the rules, but you know I break the rules.

ROMANS: Go for it.

JONES: My father told me when I was going off to Yale for law school, and, you know, he had grown up in the segregated South. He never saw he would see that. He was emotional about it. But he told me, he said, listen. When you get there you're going to see there are two kinds of smart people.

There are smart people that take very simple things and make them sound very complicated so they can enrich themselves. And there are people who take very complicated things and make them sound simple to empower other people. I want you to be that kind of smart kid when you come back home.

That totally framed my approach to my legal education. I wanted to be able to explain these ideas to the ordinary people.

But the other advice I got was from my professor, who, when I was trying to choose between going to Yale for law school and working for the Associated Press, he said any choice you make, make the choice that gives you more choices, he says, because life is about, when you're first born, nobody knows what you're going to be -- infinite possibilities.

And you've -- pretty soon, you've got nothing to do but die.

ROMANS: Life narrows choices.

JONES: (Inaudible). That's right. So he -- so my college professor told me, life narrows your choices. So if you have to make a choice, make the choice that gives you more choices. And that -- I've used that as well.


ROMANS: All right. You can see these entire interviews on race, labels, identity, success and, of course, Oprah, at Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and tell us what you think of those interviews and the show.

Our handle is CNNbottomline. My handle is @ChristineRomans. Back now back to CNN SATURDAY for the very latest headlines. Have a great weekend, everybody.