This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
More than 50,000 foster children live in California. Each year, hundreds of them age out of the foster care system and must fend for themselves. Many fall into poverty and even homelessness.
I know this grim reality all too well. When I was 12, I ran away from home to escape my physically abusive mother and stepfather. For the next six years, I bounced around the foster care system in California, never staying in one place longer than two years. During my four years attending high school, no one ever had a conversation with me about college, so I didn’t see it as a viable option. After I was emancipated at 18, I held a series of minimum wage jobs. But they weren’t enough to live on, and I struggled with homelessness for several years.
Finally, at age 25, after a crash course in living on minimum wage and watching my friends graduate and get better jobs, I enrolled in community college. I was beginning to understand the power of higher education to transform people’s lives and improve their financial security. But I soon realized that I was too old to apply for many scholarships and grants. I am about to complete my degree thanks to student loans — but many of my peers aren’t as lucky.
Cutting off financial assistance to former foster youth once they reach their early or mid-20s makes no sense. It prevents young people from finishing their post-secondary degrees and becoming successful, self-supporting members of society.
Foster youth have plenty of potential. With investment, they can realize it.
It’s time for state lawmakers, non-profits, and college administrators to extend grants and scholarships to former foster youth who are in their late 20s.
Foster children face many challenges that justify extra assistance. They grow up with unstable home lives, which cause developmental delays. Foster children experience such developmental and learning delays at more than six times the rate of the general population. Ultimately, nearly 30 percent of foster children don’t graduate from high school by age 19.
Unsurprisingly, many of these youth continue to struggle after leaving the foster system. More than a quarter will be homeless within four years of exiting the system. Less than 10% of foster children will ever earn a college degree.
Allocating more money to former foster youth throughout their 20s would help them avoid becoming another grim statistic — and save billions in the long run. On average, young adults who age out of the foster system cost society $300,000 apiece in welfare, incarceration, and other expenses.
Many programs in California support former foster youth. But most of them cut off eligibility in the early 20s.
Consider the Independent Living Program, administered through the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. It helps foster youth attain housing, education, employment, and more. Only folks aged 16 to 20 are eligible.
Even the age cap of 26 at the NextUp program — also known as Cooperating Agencies Foster Youth Educational Support — isn’t enough. I know this firsthand. I received cash grants and meal vouchers from CAFYES during my first semester of community college, when I was 25. The next year, I had to support myself — and it was a huge challenge.
Fortunately, lawmakers are starting to give former foster kids more support. Last year, California lawmakers increased the maximum eligibility age for Chafee Grants to 26. Chafee Grants give former foster youth up to $5,000 a year for career and technical training or college.
That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.
I’m fortunate to have a lot of hope for my future. I’m attending California State University Northridge and will graduate in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in business management. I’m looking forward to a career in management and community outreach.
Foster youth need more emotional and financial support to achieve their potential. Doing so is a moral imperative — and a financially savvy decision.