18-year olds with few family supports and resources are expected to secure housing, a job, and live independently, often with little preparation. Teens who “age out” of foster care often experience homelessness, unemployment, and poverty. The National Foster Youth Institute estimates that one-quarter of youth formerly in foster care experience homelessness within four years of aging out of the child welfare system and are arrested within two years. About half of youth emancipated from foster care have chronic health conditions, such as asthma, post-traumatic stress, malnutrition, and dental decay. Up to one-third lack health insurance. Fewer than five percent will earn a bachelor’s degree.
Federal lawmakers recognized this need when they created the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package signed into law in March 2021. The law gives young adults ages 18-24 who were formerly in foster care access to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for one year. The tax credit lets people who are working full-time, but earning less than $21,000 annually, claim up to $1,500 in federal tax benefits. Prior to ARPA’s passage, childless adults up to age 25 were not eligible for the credit.
HopeWell has the capacity to work with about 30 of them annually with My First Place™, a housing-first education and employment program that provides intensive case management to assist young people aging out of the foster care system, as they develop the skills to successfully transition to self-sufficiency. For most of these young adults, access to the EITC will help enormously.
Massachusetts has received $5.2 billion in ARPA funds and has until 2024 to spend the money. Separately, municipalities received $3.4 billion to share. Governor Baker has already allocated some ARPA funds to municipalities that were previously denied federal relief funding and to fund a vaccine lottery. The legislature launched a series of public meetings in July 2021 to hear ideas for how Massachusetts should spend its remaining funds. Cities and towns around the Commonwealth are doing the same — for example, Newton, Milford, and Pittsfield, to name a few
First and foremost ,young adults formerly in foster care need cash, as the federal government clearly recognized with the expansion of the EITC. Because they so often lack the support of parents or other adult family members, transition-age youth don’t benefit from things like parental loans or gifts that enable young adults to rent and furnish an apartment, go to college, or purchase a reliable car for work. There are few people they can rely on in a crisis such as a pandemic. Respondents to the Foster Club survey talked of rationing food, running out of food, being denied food stamps, and having to borrow money and food from others during pandemic lockdowns. Using ARPA funds to provide transition-age youth with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) — monthly, no-strings-attached cash payments — would go a long way toward easing stressors related to costs associated with aging out of foster care and achieving self-sufficiency.
UBI is an anti-poverty measure that has gained traction in the COVID-19 era due to widespread unemployment. Results from pilot programs in places like Stockton, CA are showing positive impacts, such as increased full-time employment, improved financial stability, and better overall well-being. Participants in the $500-a-month, two-year program spent much of the money on necessities like food, utilities, hygiene products, and auto costs. A program in Finland showed similar results. Closer to home, the cities of Cambridge and Chelsea are currently piloting UBI programs to offset the effects of the pandemic on low-income families.
Even better, Los Angeles County just approved a UBI program geared explicitly toward youth who were formerly in foster care. The planned program will give $1,200 a month to 150 young adults ages 18-24 who have nowhere else to turn for assistance. Jacqueline Robles, a 22-year-old who hopes to be selected for the program, described graduating from college and being emancipated from care just as the pandemic hit last year, leaving her at risk of becoming homeless. UBI, she said, “definitely allows you to relieve that financial burden that foster youth often face with lack of family support, that my peers may have that I wouldn’t.”
As Robles’ story illustrates, youth formerly in foster care need access to housing. ARPA funding could be put to good use to create low-cost housing options for transition-age youth. For example, in Wisconsin, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has earmarked more than $6.5 million of the city’s ARPA allotment to expand affordable housing options explicitly for youth aging out of foster care, among others. We’d love to see local mayors in Massachusetts follow suit.
The Commonwealth could also infuse existing programs for transition-age youth with ARPA funds to expand their capacity. Take, for example, the state’s Foster Child Grant Program, which provides grants of up to $6,000 per year for up to five years to help youth experiencing foster care pay tuition at a college or university of their choosing. While that’s a generous sum, given the cost of a college education today, increasing the size of the grants with ARPA funds would further defray expenses and student-loan debt for youth formerly in foster care. Likewise, the state could increase grants made through the Education and Training Voucher Program, which provides financial assistance for transition-age youth enrolling in post-secondary education and vocational training.
Massachusetts also has a State College Tuition and Fee Waiver Program, which waives tuition for youth formerly in foster care who attend public universities and community colleges. The waiver doesn’t currently cover books or room and board. ARPA funds could be used to fill that financial gap and provide more stability, thereby increasing their chances of success.
The pandemic has laid bare systemic inequities based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, and more. It’s up to us to change these systems — and ARPA funds provide an opportunity to do so.