College Diplomas, Income Elude Foster Care Alumni


A new report of a long-term study of youth who have aged out of foster care in three Midwestern states paints a grim portrait of their young adult years: The roughly 600 people being tracked have had little success obtaining college degrees; many have been homeless; more than half are unemployed; two-thirds of the young women have given birth to at least one child; and their median annual income is $8,000.

“To the extent that self-sufficiency is a marker of a successful transition to adulthood, these young people, as a group, are not faring well,” wrote the authors of the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, their fourth analysis of youth who have aged out of care in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

About 94 percent of those tracked – all of whom are now 23 or 24 years old – had not completed even a two-year associate’s degree. Only 15 of the 602 adults reported getting a four-year college degree.

The former foster care youth did not fare well in other categories of stability either.

Employment: “Needed to work” was the answer more frequently given by respondents who had dropped out of school, but for many it was a short-lived plan. Just under half of the former foster care youth were employed at the time of the interviews, which were conducted between July 2008 and April 2009. At the same time, more than three-quarters of similarly aged adults from a study of the general U.S. population were employed.

Income: The median income of interviewees was $8,000, which is $10,000 less than the median income of similarly aged adults in the general U.S. population study. Seventy-five percent of the former foster care youths were making $12 an hour or less, compared with just over half of their peers making that amount. At the same time, 9 percent of the women and 12 percent of the men reported that they had been paid by someone to have sex.

Housing: Nearly a quarter of the interviewees said they had been homeless at some time since leaving foster care, but less than 1 percent reported current homelessness. Of young adults in the study, 7 percent were in jail or prison, compared with only one-tenth of 1 percent of same-age males in the general population.

Parenting: About 44 percent of males interviewed for the study had at least one child, and only 41 percent of those fathers lived with their children. Only 18 percent of same-age males in the general population have children, and 65 percent of them live with their children.

Criminal Activity: A staggering eight of 10 males in the study said they had been arrested at least once since the age of 18. In contrast, only 42 percent reported an arrest since 2007. About 57 percent of females said they had been arrested since 18.

Victimization: Former foster care youths were about four times more likely than other adults their age to be a victim of a random beating or a beating committed in connection with a robbery.

One area where most former foster care youths reported a modicum of stability was food security. About seven of 10 interviewees reported at least marginal food security, and only 10 percent reported that they “sometimes or often” had “not enough to eat.” Not coincidentally, food stamps are by far the government benefit most received by former foster care youths, according to this study.

Class of 2002

The Midwest evaluations, conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington, follow youth from Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. Participants were first interviewed at age 17 in either 2002 or 2003, and then again at ages 19, 21 and 23. Another round of interviews will start in two years.

Over time, said study author Mark Courtney, the cohort has split into distinct groups of young adults:

  • Accelerated or emerging adults, who are relatively successful or are on their way to that status.
  • Struggling parents, mostly young mothers whose lives are dominated by one or more children born to them in a difficult economic situation.
  • Troubled adults – mostly males – whose lives have been marred by homelessness, mental health problems and criminal justice involvement.

Sadly, Courtney said, significantly more young adults end up in the latter two cohorts.

Lack of knowledge of what works

Though little is known about the long-term history of outcomes for the approximately 26,500 foster youth who exit care each year, the findings are not a ringing endorsement for current efforts to help the oldest youth in the child welfare system. Most states’ actions are undertaken with the help of federal money through the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, often referred to as the Chafee Act in recognition of its author, the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.).

The Chafee Act doubled to $140 million the annual federal awards to states to establish independent living programs for older foster care youth. The act also created a smaller pot of money that is distributed to states for education and training vouchers (funded last year at $45 million).

Study author Courtney said he does not believe all efforts undertaken with Chafee Act funds have been a failure, “but certainly they are not a success … in states I’m looking at.” All three states in the study receive Chafee Act funds.

One problem in determining success and failure is the dearth of information about how the Chafee money is spent. The act required the Department of Health and Human Services to start collecting data and outcomes from the states by 2000, but for a decade, the development of a collection system inexplicably was delayed.

The Chafee Act is “an example of a program that allowed 1,000 flowers to bloom, but we’re not tending to the garden in any systematic way,” said Courtney. “We’re way behind after 10 years.”

Under new regulations, states are required to begin collecting data for a National Youth in Transition Database in October, though there is speculation that some states will opt to incur a financial penalty rather than initiate data collection that may cost more than the penalty.

It is likely that Chafee-funded programs have increased the number of accelerated and emerging adults, Courtney said, and a recent law enabling states to match federal funds in an effort to keep youth in foster care until age 21 could reap similar benefits.

But for the large population of struggling or seriously troubled former foster care youth, Courtney said, “there’s nothing out there right now. … There’s not a lot of policy aimed at them.”

This and the complete series of reports is available at


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