Under a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Labor earlier this month, California counties will be able to provide more job-training and career-readiness services to current and former foster youth — a group that has long struggled with high rates of unemployment.
In May, California applied for a waiver from federal law that would allow counties greater flexibility to spend a total of roughly $125 million on low-income young adults, money available under the nation’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. As the primary funding stream for job readiness programs serving those ages 14 to 24, the funds can be used for vocational coaching, job training, skill development, apprenticeships and internships.
With the recently approved California plan, young people from the juvenile justice and foster care systems, as well as homeless youth, will be prioritized for these services. Advocates for these youth described the investment as a significant opportunity to improve outcomes.
“This is the first major child welfare win in the workforce space statewide,” said Lauri Collier, director of the Los Angeles-based Opportunity Youth Collaborative, which represents roughly 50 groups. “If we want to help young people prepare for life after they exit these systems, we have to give them these early work experiences to prepare them to have a career path toward a sustaining wage.”
Former foster youth are more likely to be unemployed, and they typically earn less than their peers in the general population. Findings last year from a University of Chicago longitudinal study of California foster youth found that at age 23, two years after leaving government care, more than 40% were unemployed. Just under 60% of the young people in the study had an annual income below the federal poverty level.
California’s plan to reverse this trajectory builds on a Los Angeles County effort to connect foster youth to employment opportunities, internships and career pathways before they leave the child welfare system at age 18 or 21. Since 2017, job centers there have better focused federal funding to serve system-involved young people while they are still in school. In the first year, more than 300 of these youth received employment assistance, an annual number that by 2019 more than doubled to 695.
Madonna Silver, a 19-year-old foster youth from Los Angeles, is among those who have benefited. Two years ago, she participated in a summer internship program at the city of Glendale’s Treasurer’s Office, which helped Silver open her first checking account and land a job.
Growing up in the system, foster youth are rarely prepared for career pathways or how to save money, she said in an interview earlier this year.
“It was really fulfilling to be able to earn money for myself for the first time,” Silver said. “Before that, I had to depend on money from relatives or saving my birthday money.”
The Los Angeles County effort, like the new statewide plan, seeks creative use of Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds. According to the federal law, 75% of the money must be spent on “out-of-school youth,” who are completely disconnected from education or jobs. The remainder must be used to serve young people who are enrolled in at least one class.
Under California’s plan, counties will be able to spend half of the money on young people who are in school as long as they match more services to system-involved youth. They will also have to track their efforts and set target goals, and pursue promising practices.
A coalition of 66 California organizations helped push for the waiver that allows for greater flexibility than is ordinarily allowed under existing federal law — groups motivated to overcome the difficulty for system-involved youth to access workforce development services. Nationally, although they are among the neediest populations, only 4% of the 161,288 young people served by such programs in 2018 had been in foster care or the juvenile justice system.
In California, in order to receive financial and housing assistance at age 18, foster youth must prove to a judge they are working, training, in school or looking for a job. Because of those requirements, this group is often the least likely to benefit from the federally funded job training and career preparation services.
Now, advocates like Collier hope the waiver’s flexibility will provide more job opportunities to foster youth before they leave the system. “We shouldn’t have to wait until young people are disconnected at age 21 before we start offering them services and support,” she said.
California’s plan is similar to recent efforts by other states, which have also directed more Work Innovation and Opportunity Act funding to vulnerable populations.
In 2018, Minnesota requested permission to lower the percentage of out-of-school population served to 60%, while prioritizing foster and homeless youth. And Nevada last year also received a waiver that allows job centers to work with more youth in-school.
Nevada, which has one of the nation’s highest high school dropout rates, hopes an investment in foster youth while they are attending classes will reduce the number who need help later on. A Clark County project funded by Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding, for example, trains foster youth to be early childhood educators.
In making its pitch to the federal government to use workforce funds in these ways, Nevada officials predicted the pipeline programs “should significantly increase the rate of secondary school graduation,” and increase young people’s “success in transitioning to adult life.”