A New Plan to Help Foster Youth Achieve Independence

Imagine leaving home on your 18th birthday with no family or safety net. What would you do when the rent is due, the fridge is bare or the cell phone company calls threatening to shut off service? That’s the harsh reality facing thousands of American teens who will age out of foster care this year with little more than a suitcase and the clothes on their back. 

It’s not hard to understand why many struggle to achieve independence and succumb to poor life outcomes. Statistics show that former foster youth are much more likely to become victims of human trafficking, homeless or even incarcerated, compared to other young adults. Former foster youth are also more likely to have early pregnancies and see their own children enter the child welfare system.

What can policymakers do to help former foster youth navigate the difficult transition to adulthood?

For decades, federal and state policymakers have passed bipartisan reforms aimed to help youth aging out of foster care achieve independence. These measures include extending the age of foster care to 21 in many states, offering education and job training vouchers and providing access to housing assistance and Medicaid. 

While these well-intended measures have benefited many older foster youth, they don’t help with some of the basic day-to-day challenges that former foster youth face and may determine whether they end up on the streets. In this way, society has not yet adequately addressed the hurdles facing teens who age out of our child welfare systems. Policymakers should consider new strategies for supporting the difficult transition to independence. 

In a new report, Tim Keller and I propose an alternative approach to help teens aging out of foster care by providing direct financial support. Establishing “Fostering Independence Accounts” would provide cash assistance to help former foster youth pay for day-to-day living expenses.

These accounts could be funded and overseen by state governments to ensure that tax dollars are used appropriately and to help former foster youth stay on the radar of child welfare agencies. Congress could permit states to use existing federal dollars to reimburse the costs associated with the accounts to help states enact this kind of program.

The new report was co-published by Gen Justice and the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP).

“A college education is estimated to add $1 million to a person’s lifetime earning potential, but few kids in foster care attain one,” reasoned Gen Justice Founder Darcy Olsen, who has adopted four foster children. “We call on lawmakers to recognize their role as surrogate parents to these teens and to provide direct cash assistance to those aging out.”

“We are focused on researching and developing public policy solutions that expand economic opportunity for those who least have it,” explained FREOPP President Avik Roy. “Fostering Independence Accounts will help at-risk teens have a better chance to thrive as adults.”

Gen Justice and FREOPP will be briefing Congressional staff and state lawmakers about these policy recommendations in the coming days. 

Dan Lips is a visiting fellow with the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and the co-author with Tim Keller of “Fostering Independence Accounts: A New Approach to Help Youth Aging Out of Foster Care.”

To learn more about the challenges facing vulnerable children, check out a Roundtable webinar on the topic on June 10, 2021. Register to attend the online event here.

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