As the pandemic continues to hobble a devastated economy, two Western states are working to make sure that federal funds available for helping young people get jobs reach those who have grown up in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
California and Nevada are the first states to use a special waiver process that allows them to reach out to these most vulnerable young people, who are often underserved by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The 2014 federal law provides states with roughly $846 million a year to pay for job training, internships, vocational classes and career readiness services for 16- through 24-year-olds.
But youth on probation and in foster care have not often benefitted, despite their great needs for independent income. In 2018, only about 3% of young people in foster care or those who recently aged out received the workforce development services.
Nevada received federal approval for its plan last June that would grant it more flexibility to target these young people for employment services. California’s proposal – spearheaded by the California Opportunity Youth Network – is awaiting an April response to its proposed plan from the U.S. Department of Labor.
America’s economy shrank by 3.5% last year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the worst contraction since 1946. And even as the economy has bounced back in places since the tumultuous first months of the pandemic, unemployment rates in Nevada and California remain the highest in the country outside of Hawaii.
Young people ages 16 to 24, and foster youth in particular, have been hit especially hard when it comes to income from employment. Jobs in retail, hospitality and other service industries that rely on young people have yet to bounce back, and when they do, youth are expected to face competition from older laid-off workers.
As many as 65% of foster youth who were employed before the pandemic have since lost their jobs, said Tiffany Tyler-Garner, the former director of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation who now leads the Las Vegas-based Children’s Advocacy Alliance.
“While many are struggling financially right now,” she said, “our foster youth can’t count on the same networks or family supports that others can.”
For young people in the juvenile justice and foster care systems, there are myriad obstacles to landing a job. Some youth face probation or curfew restrictions that can restrict their availability for shifts, and others don’t have reliable transportation and can’t easily get a parent or guardian to sign a work release form.
Another hurdle has been rules that govern how federal workforce money can be spent on the local level. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act requires that 75% of funds go specifically to youth who are not enrolled in school — a focus that has often shifted efforts away from foster youth who are struggling but may be steadily enrolled in school.
When help reaches them, it can make all the difference.
Madonna Silver, a 19-year-old foster youth from Glendale, California, who attends University of California Los Angeles, said she got her first job last year through a summer internship program that offered her 120 hours of paid work experience at the city of Glendale’s Treasurer’s Office. That experience helped her open up her first checking account and land her next job on campus.
In foster care, Silver said, career pathways often don’t exist; social workers focus on their children’s immediate needs, and the youth aren’t always ready to think about a career or how to interview for a job.
“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.”
To help more young people like Silver, California is asking the federal government for the freedom to prioritize homeless youth and those in foster care and the juvenile justice systems with its workforce funds. To do so, a statewide coalition of 66 advocates, providers and members of local workforce boards hopes to expand on an effort in Los Angeles that has doubled the number of systems-involved youth served by Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding in recent years.
In 2017, Los Angeles provided workforce services to 306 homeless youth and young people from the juvenile justice and foster care systems through its Performance Partnership Pilot for Disconnected Youth. By 2019, that number grew to 695 youth. Those efforts got a boost from investments like a $20.7 million career development program in Los Angeles County focusing on the same populations, with the goal of providing 300 paid hours of work experience to young people before they turn 18.
In the past, it has been difficult to identify foster youth and steer them to newly available job programs. But in Los Angeles, advocates, social workers, school counselors and workforce agency employees have worked together to develop a new countywide referral system to improve that process and young people’s prospects.
Hoping to replicate Los Angeles’ success, a philanthropically driven initiative to increase employment opportunities for foster youth in the Bay Area will get underway later this year.
“If you have a job, you have money, you start to develop self-confidence and self-worth. You start to feel good about yourself,” said Los Angeles Opportunity Youth Collaborative Director Lauri Collier, who is helping to launch the Bay Area Transition-Age Youth Workforce Initiative. “If young people don’t have those opportunities, it can all just start to implode.”
In Nevada, the new youth workforce plan also allows for greater flexibility than is ordinarily allowed under federally funded workforce programs for young people.
In the past, Children’s Advocacy Alliance Executive Director Tyler-Garner said, “We were missing windows to intervene before they dropped out of school.”
Workforce Connections, the Las Vegas-based Clark County workforce development board, now offers foster youth paid work experience in career-exposure programs in the construction and early childhood education industries. The agency receives referrals from the county’s child welfare agency, a foster care agency and nonprofits groups.
Tyler-Garner said the state has “more than just a moral imperative” to deploy these efforts on behalf of young people who have experienced foster care and the juvenile justice system.
“If we can begin career development services early, we have the ability to interrupt a cycle of generational poverty and system dependence by making sure they have the dignity of work,” she said.