In a historic move to support young adults raised by the government, a monthly check of up to $1,000 — with no restrictions and no strings attached — will be sent to thousands of California foster youth once they leave the state’s custody, guaranteeing them the first statewide universal basic income.
California’s state Senate and Assembly unanimously passed the $35 million program on Thursday, which was then approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday.
“It’s so amazing,” said Veronica Vieyra of San Jose, a former foster youth and college graduate who received a monthly $1,000 payment as part of a universal basic income pilot program in Santa Clara County.
Responding to the news in a text message, Vieyra, 25, celebrated the state leaders’ decision.
She said the benefit “has now become the one helping hand youths are in search of when feeling lost or alone after exiting the foster care system.”
Legislative analysts estimate that the taxpayer-funded program will serve between 2,400 to 2,500 young people like Vieyra who exit the foster care system each year.
“It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have for these young people,” said Priya Mistry, the director of community initiatives at the San Jose-based nonprofit Pivotal, which supports foster youth with education and employment support. Mistry said the money will make a profound difference, allowing young people to “actually have a place to live, pay rent, bills, and money for a cell phone — which is critical.”
The amount former foster youth receive will be determined by local governments and organizations, but will likely be $1,000 a month, aiding these young adults who struggle far more than others their age with homelessness, educational delays and incarceration.
In May 2020, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a universal basic income pilot plan, with no-strings-attached payments to help keep former foster youth’s lives stable in turbulent times. The plan provided a lucky group of former foster youth, ages 21 to 24, with $1,000 monthly payments for up to a year. It was the first time the nascent idea of universal basic income has been granted specifically to foster youth.
“We’re already doing it, and it’s been successful so far,” said Sparky Harlan, the CEO of the Bill Wilson Center, which provides services to more than 5,000 children, youth, young adults and families in Santa Clara County.
The local government decision came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as unemployment rates in California approached a devastating 24%.
The Santa Clara County supervisor who spearheaded the effort, Dave Cortese, later became a state senator and this year, introduced Senate Bill 739, which was combined with the governor’s universal basic income proposal.
Gov. Newsom announced in May a statewide universal basic income program, building off of efforts in Stockton, Oakland, and other cities. These programs have been gaining momentum with plans previously announced in New Orleans, Louisiana; Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Tacoma, Washington; and Gainesville, Florida; according to the Associated Press.
Under California’s state law, local governments and organizations will determine the size of the monthly payments, which can range from $500 to $1,000 per person each month. Pregnant people will also be prioritized for benefits, as well as other low-income Californians, according to the most recent state budget summary.
Former foster youth April Barcus told The Imprint in March that even before the pandemic wrecked low-income people’s finances, California’s housing costs kept many of her peers from building savings and a sense of security.
“Even if you work a minimum wage job full-time, it’s not enough,” Barcus said. “You’re always working, and you’re always behind.”
Barcus is among the thousands of young people emerging from foster care who will soon be able to rely on a steady income.
The law had bipartisan support and passed 36-0 in the Senate and 64-0 in the Assembly, according to the AP. However, Vince Fong, a Republican Assembly member from Bakersfield, told the news service that guaranteed income programs “undermine incentives to work and increase dependence on government.”
“We should be pushing policies that encourage the value of work,” said Fong, who abstained from Thursday’s vote. “Guaranteed income doesn’t provide the job training and skills needed for upward mobility.”
But many of these young people are working, and the money provides “a cushion, so they aren’t on the edge of homelessness,” director Harlan said. And given the added burdens of the pandemic, many people need that help to pay for car insurance or repairs, as well as upgrading technology so they can join Zoom meetings or participate in online learning.
The concept of a UBI payment for former foster youth recently received the strong endorsement of University of Chicago social work professor Mark Courtney, a leading researcher on young people aging out of the child welfare system. In a Feb. 5 opinion piece published by the nonprofit news outlet The Appeal, Courtney advocated for guaranteed direct cash assistance to help young adults “bridge the gap” from foster care to independence.
Courtney makes this case after spending decades surveying thousands of young adults across the country on the hardships they face after leaving the system.
“The government functions as their parent,” wrote Courtney and co-author Shanta Trivedi, a fellow at Georgetown University Law Center, “and then swiftly extinguishes financial support, depriving foster kids of the safety net that so many of their peers increasingly find necessary.”
Reporter Sara Tiano contributed to this report.
This story was updated Monday, July 19.