The foster care system’s shortcomings are a social problem that is systematically forgotten: over 20,000 youth age out of foster care every year—that is, turn 18 without a permanent family and are no longer eligible for government care.
The lack of government commitment and action to this cause has put the U.S. at risk for an abundance of overlapping economic and social costs and become an embarrassing oversight for a world leader in human rights.
The most concerning fault in the system is seen with the rate of homelessness for aged-out youth, with one-third of this demographic spending their first night on the streets. The homelessness rates have been steadily increasing for aged out youth as well. In 1996 the homeless rate for aged out youth was 21%, while in 2012 that number nearly doubled with 40% of aged out youth reporting being homeless.
The “Housing First” initiative states that housing might be the most important factor when it comes to self-sufficiency. Proper housing helps teens stay focused on school and work as opposed to where they are going to sleep that night. This initiative tries to combat homelessness as quickly as possible, then shifts the focus to making community-based connections to avoid returning to homelessness in the future. However “Section 8”, low income housing, which is partially paid for by the government, is one of the most competitive programs to qualify for, making this initiative hard to actualize with limited allocated funds.
Poverty is another consequence commonly associated with aged-out youth. A study conducted in the Midwest by the National Association of Counties showed that 40% of former fosters could not afford clothing, 20% were unable to pay rent and 15% could not afford food. It is unacceptable that a group of individuals that have been under government care through childhood are now expected to be fully independent without any preparation. This has proven ineffective every year, most recently with a 2015 nationwide study showing that 80% of youth aging out of foster care were leading dysfunctional lives
This problem continues to cycle, according to the same Midwest study. With no training or experience, over half of aged-out youth are unemployed, and two-thirds have not held a job for longer than a year. Many attribute this to the fact that only 58 percent of foster youth will graduate high school by age 19, compared to 87 percent of all 19-year-olds in the U.S.. Meanwhile scholarship opportunities are becoming more competitive and youth have less buying power to attend higher education.
Furthermore, the effects of an unstable childhood, such as moving from foster home to foster home on average every two years, are seen in studies that show one in three aged-out youth are living with some form of mental illness. This is not only a serious medical problem, but also the economic strain of medical expenses for goods and services, such as therapy and medication, put these youth at a disadvantage early on. Especially when Medicaid, a government entitlement healthcare program, does not cover all of the needs required by these aged out youth, including therapy, the system becomes harder and harder to navigate.
The paramount concern for this demographic is that one in four are incarcerated in the justice system within two years of leaving foster care. When looking at the $63.4 billion a year that the United States spent to cover the cost of incarceration this past year, aged-out youth comprised 80% of the national prison population and therefore 80% of the overall cost. This increases economic costs across the board and continues to create barriers to housing and employment, which become considerably harder to obtain once one has been convicted.
There have been many suggestions for solutions. For instance, States such as Minnesota and Washington have passed a bill that would allow foster youth that reach the age of 18 without a permanent family to stay under the system until 21, allowing for an emerging adulthood that many non-foster children experience. This generally consists of extended foster care placement, usually with conditions, such as they must be enrolled in high school, some form of higher education or be working full-time. Some other reforms provide means for those who are aging out to live independently and have access to more resources, such as finances, education, or health support.
Some people believe that reforms have not gone far enough. Another common suggestion is temporary housing, because adults with stable housing are more likely to stay in school, stay safe, and are less likely to engage in gang activity and substance abuse. Job and independent living training could provide experience and confidence to be self-sustaining as well.
Many believe there should also be a plan to provide adequate healthcare that will extend until an aged-out youth reaches the age of 26, to help the 50% of former fosters that report being uninsured. This would be an extension of the Affordable Care Act, which currently allows dependent children to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until the age of 26. In the case of foster children, the government would step in, as to not ignore the youth that do not have parents.
There is also the issue of educational barriers. If former foster children don’t have access to stable jobs, stable homes and scholarship resources, it is unlikely they will have access to higher education. The Chafee Education Award is one solution: it offers college tuition and living assistance for students who are in foster care or have aged out of it.
These reforms will not only be a great moral victory, but also save money while providing much-needed resources. Research shows that on average $300,000 is spent on each aged-out youth throughout their lifetime, while new reforms have been shown to save taxpayers $1.35 for every dollar put into these programs. Ideally, this money can then be funneled into providing more expansive resources for former foster children.
Foster children are the responsibility of the entire nation. They are in these situations at no fault of their own, and therefore are our own dependents, entitled to an adequate education, sufficient health care, access to housing and a means to get out of a cycle of poverty. However, somewhere along the way they have been forgotten about and pushed to the wayside; it is our duty to make sure we set them up for a life of success and provide the same access to opportunities as everyone else.