One County Offers Universal Basic Income to Former Foster Youth

Santa Clara County will provide some foster youth with cash assistance as they transition out of the system.

Santa Clara County will provide some foster youth with cash assistance as they transition out of the system. Shutterstock


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Santa Clara County in California launched the nation’s first UBI program specifically aimed at giving a boost to young adults who are transitioning out of foster care.

Some young adults aging out of the foster care system in Santa Clara County, California will get a leg-up this year as part of a universal basic income program to provide former foster youth with $1,000 per month for one year. 

"Providing UBI to Santa Clara County's transitioning foster kids is literally a lifeline for them at this devastating time,” said Gisèle Huff, the president of the Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity, a universal basic income advocacy group that helped the county stand up the program. “It opens the door to making it available to all marginalized people who desperately need a floor to stand on."

California is no stranger to experimentation with universal basic income. The first city-led pilot program for no-strings-attached cash assistance started in Stockton in February 2019 under Mayor Michael Tubbs, with select low-income residents getting $500 per month to help with necessary expenses. The program in Santa Clara is the first in the nation to specifically target young people who were in the foster care system as the recipients. 

The County Board of Supervisors approved $900,000 for the program, most of which will go to a group of 24-year-olds who are transitioning out of foster care in Santa Clara, while a portion will be used to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the pilot. Dave Cortese, the supervisor who proposed the plan, said that the program will improve the lives of the 72 recipients at the time when they most need it.

“Youth transitioning out of the Santa Clara County foster care system are desperately in need of ongoing support,” Cortese said in a statement. “Providing basic income for these young adults will better support their transition and empower them to find success, well-being and independence.”

One of the most difficult adjustments for people exiting the foster system in Santa Clara is finding—and paying for—housing. The San Francisco Bay Area is notoriously expensive, affordable housing is scarce, and homelessness is on the rise—all factors that make finding housing difficult for anyone and exacerbate the challenges for former foster youth.

Research has consistently found that foster youth who have left the system are more likely to struggle with housing insecurity than other young adults. One study of foster youth who had aged out of programs in the Midwest found that nearly 40% of 23- and 24-year-olds had been homeless or coach-surfed since leaving foster care. These precarious living situations can then have ripple effects, as former foster youth who experience homelessness are less likely to continue with their education after high school or find full-time employment. They also face high rates of mental health problems, sexual victimization, and lack of access to healthcare. 

California already provides more support to the 59,000 children and young adults in its foster care system than most states. Foster youth are allowed to stay in the system at least until they turn 21, instead of leaving at 18 like some other states. California is also one of the few states with continuing support available until young people turn 25 in the form of housing vouchers, financial coaching, and support for pursuing secondary education. 

But that patchwork of programs for foster kids between age 21 and 25 years-old  is very complex to navigate and inevitably leaves some young people behind because they “don’t check all the eligibility boxes,” or because they simply “tire of the bureaucracy,” said Roselyn Miller, a policy analyst who has studied universal basic income for former foster youth at the think tank New America. 

“When you are used to navigating mountains of paperwork and having your whole life surveilled and monitored and measured, there comes a point where you want out,” she said. “Vouchers sometimes tell young adults that they aren’t fully capable of deciding what they want and need out of life.”

For some voucher programs, foster youth are required to “prove their adulthood in ways other young adults are not,” Miller said. She pointed to housing voucher programs that may require participants to take independent living courses to show they can handle basic skills as an example of foster youth not being trusted to make their own decisions.

Even if they have vouchers or other resources, former foster youth often lack the support systems that exist for other young adults. The Pew Research Center in 2019 found that just 24% of 22-year-olds are financially independent from their parents, while 45% of young adults surveyed said they “received a lot of or some financial help” from their parents.

That’s where cash assistance can help fill gaps, giving former foster youth a more level playing field with other young adults and also provide them with flexibility that voucher programs don’t allow for. County administrators have repeatedly said that the program is “not charity,” but rather designed to be “consistent financial support” for those who need stability.

Miller, herself a former foster youth who aged out of the system in California, said that the program may end up giving participants much more than cash assistance. Giving young adults who were in foster care money without any stipulations or requirements amounts to a vote of confidence in their abilities to make decisions for themselves. 

“From when a child enters the foster system to when they exit, they have little to no agency over what happens to them. There’s a combination of people’s low expectations and your lack of access to resources that creates negative self perceptions about your abilities,” Miller said. “Giving people the opportunity to develop the independence that is so critical in early adulthood is hugely important to making sure people leave the system in a way that sets them up for success.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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