Imagine we could make sure that every young person transitioning out of foster care was able to graduate from high school and go on to college or post-secondary training, live in safe and stable housing and have opportunities to work and delay parenting until they are ready ― the minimum that we want for our own children. If we knew that support would pay off in $4.1 billion for our country’s economy over the life span of each wave of 23,000 young people leaving foster care every year, wouldn’t we make it happen?
We know what makes a difference in young people’s lives and sets them up for success. A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Future Savings: The Economic Potential of Successful Transitions from Foster Care to Adulthood,” highlights the enormous gains we can make, for young people and for society, by taking action on this knowledge.
If we put the support in place to help young people leaving foster care graduate from high school at the same rate as teenagers in the general population, for example, 5,290 more would graduate from high school each year, leading to $2.17 billion in economic gains through increased lifetime income. Young people in extended foster care are more likely to obtain a high school diploma or equivalent credential than those who age out of foster care earlier, and young people of color in extended foster care have the same or higher odds of obtaining a high school diploma/GED than their white counterparts in extended care.
Insights from neuroscience help us understand that healthy adolescent development is shaped by supportive relationships and opportunities to build skills, practice making decisions and participate in normal growing-up activities like learning to drive and taking part in after-school sports. Young people in foster care often miss out on these activities and sources of support through no fault of their own; for example, they are likely to have to move and change schools, which also reduces the chance they will graduate. They are no different than any other young people who can succeed with caring adults supporting them.
Policymakers, community leaders, child welfare professionals and others dedicated to ensuring that future generations can thrive must draw on the experiences of young people to help develop solutions and spur more effective policies. Decision makers must be aware not only of the profound personal consequences of lost opportunity, but also the lost financial potential to young people, public programs and society.
Extend foster care
While nearly 90% of 21-year-olds in the general population hold at least a high school diploma, only 66% of 21-year-olds who experience foster care achieve this milestone. Compared to 4% of the general population, 23% of youth who age out of foster care will experience homelessness by the age of 21. Young women in foster care are also more likely to become adolescent mothers and are at an increased risk of living in poverty. Systems are even less successful at achieving positive outcomes for youth of color in foster care: African-American youths were 10% more likely, and Latino youths 11% more likely, than their white peers to leave foster care without a permanent family.
We can change these statistics by supporting families that welcome older youth and by not only extending the age of foster care, but making foster care higher quality and more tailored to young people transitioning into adulthood and investing in the relationships, resources and opportunities shown to help teenagers and young adults thrive. We can create policies to keep young people in their neighborhoods and schools whenever possible, even when their family situations change.
We can make sure they have tools to learn how to manage their money and access to matched-savings programs like Opportunity Passport®, which helps young people purchase necessities like housing, cars and tuition that keep them connected to work and school. We can take steps to address normal teen behavior outside of courts and prisons whenever possible.
If we do these things, we will quite literally reap rewards. And while realizing $4.1 billion for every group that transitions from foster care is a powerful financial incentive, we should never forget the potential of these young people to thrive and contribute is priceless indeed.
Leslie Gross is director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, an effort of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to support policies and practices to improve outcomes for teenagers and young adults who have experienced foster care.