Coming of Age: Employment Outcomes for Youth Who Age Out of Foster Care Through Their Middle Twenties

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Urban Institute
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Studies of former foster youth who age out care find that they generally experience high unemployment, unstable employment patterns and low earnings from ages 18 to 21.

This study, requested and funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, focused on whether such youth catch up to their peers by their mid-20s, or continue to experience less employment and significantly lower earnings.

Urban Institute researchers found that, compared with youth nationally, youth who age out of foster care are less likely to be employed or employed regularly, and earn very little when they are employed, at least through age 24.

More than 24,000 youths “aged out” of the foster care system in 2005, the most recent year for which federal data are available.

The study used youths’ Social Security numbers, along with child welfare, unemployment insurance (UI) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) databases, to link foster status, employment outcomes and welfare receipts. The researchers created a comparison group using TANF data and a national sample derived from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Analyses were conducted for California, Minnesota and North Carolina.

At age 24, the average monthly earnings for employed youth who aged out of foster care were $690 in California, $575 in Minnesota and $450 in North Carolina, compared with $1,535 for youth nationally. Employment and earnings differences remained even when former foster youth were compared with youth from low-income families in the three states.

Youths who aged out of care tended to follow one of four employment trajectories – two that yielded positive outcomes and two that yielded poor outcomes.

• Youths with positive employment outcomes at age 24 were either “consistently connected” or “later connected.”

“Consistently connected” youth – representing 16 percent to 25 percent of youth in the three study states – were highly likely to have entered the work force before age 18, to have maintained employment from ages 18 to 24, and to have earnings that were comparable to the national average for that age group.

“Later connected” youth – generally, not in the work force before age 18 – showed steadily increasing levels of employment and earnings through age 24. They did not, however, reach the national average for their age group. These youth represented 16 percent to 21 percent of those who aged out of care in the study states.

• Youth with poor employment outcomes were either “never connected” or only “initially connected.”

“Never connected” youth – representing 22 percent to 33 percent of aged-out foster youth in the three states – had little or no earnings prior to age 18, or from ages 18 to 24.

“Initially connected” youth were very likely to have work force connections and maintain employment through their late teens, but then their likelihood of employment rapidly declined throughout their early 20s. This group represented 22 percent to 46 percent of the aged-out foster youth in the study states.

The researchers speculate that the drop in employment for initially connected youth might be due to shifts toward employment in fields not covered by the data, moves out of state, incarceration or childbearing.

For all foster youth, the researchers suggest that early job skills training that connects them to the work force as teenagers might produce later benefits, and that a significant portion of youth who age out of care might need help to maintain employment or to access adult employment services.