Former foster youth in California would receive $1,000 a month for their basic needs, under a new piece of legislation now being considered by state lawmakers grappling with widespread economic devastation during the pandemic.
Under Senate Bill 739 – introduced Feb. 19 by state Sen. David Cortese (D) – young people aging out of the state’s extended foster care program at age 21 would be eligible to receive a universal basic income payment, or UBI, for three years.
The payments would be unconditional, rather than requiring that they show proof of work or study, Cortese said in an interview with The Imprint. The idea isn’t to run “another old-fashioned welfare program,” he explained, but to provide the kind of financial safety net parents often offer to their adult children.
Former foster youth April Barcus said 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.”
The concept of a UBI payment for former foster youth recently received strong endorsement from 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 report published by the nonprofit news outlet The Appeal, Courtney advocated for guaranteed direct cash assistance to help young adults “bridge the gap” from state 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, and then swiftly extinguishes financial support, depriving foster kids of the safety net that so many of their peers increasingly find necessary,” wrote Courtney and co-author Shanta Trivedi, a fellow at Georgetown University Law Center.
Without that support, former foster youth struggle far more than other young adults with homelessness, educational delays and the criminal justice system. And despite foster care payments that now end at age 21, that cut-off has become a new perilous precipice, upending students working toward their degrees and pushing young parents into poverty, the researchers stated.
“A basic income program gives them a chance at solvency and a stable future,” Courtney and Trivedi wrote.
Sen. Cortese advocates for the approach based on his experience in Santa Clara County, where he served on the Board of Supervisors for 12 years prior to becoming a state senator in December. An ongoing local pilot program there provides former foster youth with $1,000 a month, similar to what Cortese would like to see on a statewide level.
“We learned even more about the need than we perhaps knew in the first place,” Cortese said of county staff and elected leaders. “There’s just a tremendous need, and the pandemic has exacerbated everything.”
Barcus said while she supports Cortese’s bill, she worries that the program would exclude many former foster youth in need. In the bill’s current language, participation in the UBI program would be contingent upon remaining in extended foster care until age 21, which would not apply to all young people raised in the system – some of whom may have been adopted or briefly lived with families as teenagers but were later cast out on their own.
“Just because someone is in a guardianship doesn’t mean they’ll be supported after they’re 18,” said Barcus, who has spent years advocating for foster youth in the state capitol.
Stockton, California, made national headlines last year for its 18-month pilot program offering $500 monthly to a random sample of residents. Early data from the city’s analysis suggests that recipients are largely spending the extra funds on basic necessities – food, utilities, clothing and car repairs. Participants in a two-year UBI pilot in Finland felt happier and less stressed, and grew to have more trust in government institutions, researchers there found.
While the idea of a universal basic income as a way to combat poverty may have been new to many when Andrew Yang brought it to the presidential primary debate stage in 2018, it is quickly gaining popularity.
The pilot in Santa Clara County was the first time a UBI was offered specifically to foster youth, according to Courtney and Trivedi.
Cortese’s bill to spread the benefit statewide is still in the early phases and will have its first hearing in the coming weeks. Cortese’s office doesn’t yet have an estimate of what the program would cost. Both the Stockton and Santa Clara County UBI programs rely on private and philanthropic funds.
Cortese said he hopes that, if approved, the benefit for former foster youth could be an early test for expanding UBI to all Californians in need.
“Foster care has always been a great area to test institutional change,” he said.