Our existing responses to children and families impacted by the child welfare system falls short in supporting them while children are in foster care, and more certainly after they leave. The Transitional Housing Program (THP), the Chafee Grant, and extended foster care programs, to name a few, are great and help to reduce houselessnes and increase college access. What is lacking are policies that address equitable access to housing and education over a young person’s entire life.
Redressing systemic failures of the child welfare system begins with strong public policy that removes financial barriers. Here I posit two important policy reforms that are drastically needed in the area of housing and education for youth who have aged into adulthood from foster care. First, housing policy for people who experienced foster care that does not require them to put a down payment on a house. Second, education policy that guarantees them postsecondary education, tuition-free. I would also advocate for retroactive compensation and debt forgiveness for people who were in foster care and had to put themselves through college and/or purchase a home prior to the introduction of these policies.
When it comes to building a safe, stable life in America, there are two things one can acquire that go a long way toward securing that reality: a house, and a college degree. Research shows that students from low- to middle-income backgrounds are more likely to enroll and graduate from college when their family has an increase in “housing wealth.” Those same students gained access to higher quality colleges, as well, because of the equity their families had in their homes.
A person’s access to higher education is impacted by their family’s ability to be homeowners. However, for far too many youth who age out of foster care, homeownership is a goal that is difficult to realize; out of reach to any who lack life savings or the privilege to incur debt. Meanwhile, our child welfare and education systems are failing to move foster youth toward postsecondary enrollment and completion.
Education gives people the opportunity to move up the socio-economic ladder. For individuals who start near the bottom economically, a four-year degree has the potential to quadruple their income. Housing policy and education policy are not mutually exclusive. At the secondary school level, property taxes influence the available resources of an area’s public schools. Furthermore, one of the first things people inquire about entering the housing market is the quality of schools in their areas where they might want to buy a house — the quality of schooling and property ownership drive each other. When you do not have access to either, you are pushed further to the margins of society.
It is no coincidence that both housing and education were center stage during the 1960s civil rights movements that leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed. Access to housing and education are major indicators to success in life. Housing has been one of the single greatest wealth builders in the U.S, and for generations, Black people and other people of color were shut out of owning a home in neighborhoods they desired, or simply denied home loans all together.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the disproportionate number of Black youth and children in foster care. This is problematic given the ways in which foster care leaves Black children without a remunerated financial and emotional safety net after emancipation. Coupled with the aformentioned racist American policy that has denied Black people housing and education over generations, navigating these multiple forms of systemic oppression has a compounding impact that is particularly devastating for Black foster youth and their ability to move into the middle class and beyond.
That’s what leads me to my conclusion that an equity-minded policy agenda includes legislation that enables people who experienced foster care — those stripped of parental and financial security — to purchase a house without a downpayment, particularly given how difficult it is for the average person to compete in today’s housing market. Being a homeowner doesn’t just give you the piece of mind of having a home, it provides you with equity and the prospects for generational wealth.
As organizations begin to craft and lobby policy in this new session, they should also seek to establish tuition-free college programs for foster youth, something several states have already adopted. We can use those models at the federal level to remove postsecondary barriers for foster youth across the country. Given the amount of debt students are leaving college with, it saddles them with no means to purchase property and start their lives. Access to housing and education work in tandem, and are vitally important for young people who have been trapped in the carceral regime that is child welfare.
I would love to imagine a world where we can conjure up the perfect policy that will solve all our problems. More realistic, however, is a steady diet of policies that build upon each other. Policies that examine upstream effects that have strategically disenfranchised people who come into contact with the child welfare system. We need policy that is more than a Band-aid, we need policies that address the social determinants of housing and education inequity. The public has a duty to care for current foster youth and those who have already left the system. When we, the public, create institutions that do harm, it is our responsibility to redress that harm, not just in the short term but for the long term, too. Policy that creates equity and changes peoples lives should be the goal.