This article is published in partnership with Knock LA, a nonprofit independent news outlet in Los Angeles.
As someone who spent 17 years in Los Angeles County’s child welfare system — one of the largest systems in the US — and specifically in the American Indian child welfare unit, I am no stranger to the apparent statistics on my foster brothers and sisters. Foster youth are one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. We, as a society, are responsible for providing a safety net to them.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, Black and Indigenous children are represented in foster care at a rate that is respectively 1.66 and 2.84 times greater than their percentage of the overall population. Unfortunately, Black and brown children are disproportionately impacted in the child welfare system and have adverse outcomes when they are emancipating. These outcomes include incarceration, homelessness, low educational attainment, mental illness, premature death, unemployment, and poverty.
I propose a policy that focuses on three possible outcomes of emancipation from the child welfare system: incarceration, homelessness, and low educational attainment. Budgets allocated to sustaining mass incarceration and addressing homelessness, as well as the economic losses attached to low support of those with low educational attainment, prove that there is enough money to financially support foster youth when they age out of the child welfare system.
Foster youth are disproportionately institutionalized. Often referred to as the foster-care-to-prison pipeline, 90% of foster youth with five or more placements will enter the juvenile justice system. Youth in group homes are also 2.5 times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system than youth in foster families. In fact, one in four former foster youth will become involved with the juvenile justice system within two years of aging out. On average, it costs $106,000 per year to house one person in a California prison, and the price continues to increase annually due to security and healthcare costs.
Upon aging out of care, many youth do not have access to traditional familial support or financial resources to obtain permanent supportive housing. In fact, after aging out of foster care, one in four California foster youth experience homelessness. Aging out of foster care is worse for LGBTQ+ youth, as they are 1.74 times more likely to experience homelessness when compared to their heterosexual counterparts. Addressing homelessness is costly. The United States has already budgeted $10.7 billion for homelessness-related programs for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, and about $37 million of it is for transitional-age youth.
Low Education Attainment
Foster youth face adverse consequences when it comes to education — for a multitude of reasons. These include switching foster care placements, losing transcripts, lacking familial support, and lacking educational resources. As a result, foster youth score lower on state achievement tests than the general population, are more likely to repeat a grade, and enroll in special education programs. These outcomes have rippling effects that translate to only 50% of foster youth graduating high school and less than 10% completing a four-year degree.
Not only does lack of educational attainment translate into less lifetime earnings, increased poverty rates, and homelessness, but the economy as a whole suffers. Researchers at Columbia University report that the United States loses hundreds of billions of dollars each year when young people fail to graduate from high school. The total economic loss is valued at $192 billion, or a 1.6% decrease of gross domestic product (GDP).
Considering the fiscal losses and unfortunate outcomes in these youths’ lives, something must be done. When a child enters the foster care system, they become a ward of the court and the state becomes in loco parentis, a Latin term meaning “in place of a parent.” Each state is responsible for the outcomes and lives of children in their care. We need a policy that would ensure that foster youth all over the United States receive a universal basic income of $1,000 a month until age 24, with no strings attached on how they will spend the money. This policy would include access to universal funding, financial literacy courses, and case management services to ensure a smooth transition upon aging out.
This money would make a profound difference in funding basic necessities that foster youth need to survive, such as rent, food, a cell phone, computer access, education expenses, and more. Even if foster youth are working minimum wage jobs, it is not enough to support themselves, especially in high-cost-of-living areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. This universal basic income will provide supplemental income to foster youth for the things they need to thrive.
If we do not invest now in preventive policies for foster youth, taxpayers will be paying more into reactive programs in the long run. We know the data and statistics. It’s time we do something about it.