“From freshman year to senior year I was in 21 different placements — group homes [and] foster homes. It was hard to go to school, especially. It also really affected me because I never really felt like anywhere was home.” Kody Hart, an upbeat person with a positive outlook, will be 25 in August. He aged out of the foster care system when he was 18, after six years of state-run care. He doesn’t have family money to fall back on and is working hard to stay afloat, pay off educational debt, and find a way to move out of the increasingly expensive Bay Area.
Every year, 150 young people age out of the foster care system in California’s Santa Clara County. Statewide, 90 percent of foster youth don’t have a source of income when they leave state care, and between rent, school, clothing, food, and other living expenses, surviving in the Bay Area as a foster youth in transition is difficult.
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The average cost of rent in San Jose, located in the southern part of the county, is $2,790. Up to 50 percent of foster youth experience homelessness when they leave state care, and in Santa Clara County alone, nearly 50 percent of those under the age of 25 who lack access to shelter had spent some time in the foster care system. Statewide, nearly 50 percent of foster youth are chronically absent from school, 60 percent of foster youth in transition don’t have a high school diploma, and most don’t go on to obtain a college degree. As a result, many higher-paying jobs are not accessible.
A new pilot program put forth by the county’s Board of Supervisors aims to make life easier for young people like Hart by providing the country’s first universal basic income for foster youth in transition. A universal basic income has been shown to increase educational attainment, health care coverage, and provide access to healthier food for all people, but results are especially pronounced for people who are low-income.
For a 12-month period that started in June 2020, eligible young adults will receive $1,000 every month, no strings attached. The program is designed for young adults aged 21 to 24 — an age range at which many become ineligible for other social safety net programs — and eligibility is based on a number of factors, with higher priority given to 24-year-olds. Young adults must have been dependents of Santa Clara County between the ages of 16 and 21, and must currently live in the county.
For 23-year-old Bayleen Solorio, the UBI payments she’ll receive through the county will help her address her number one issue: housing. Before the onset of the pandemic, she was “tight on cash,” and now that businesses are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s working one shift per week at her job. The UBI is coming at the right time, but it still might not be enough to last through this economic downturn.
Solorio said the UBI program will offer her “that extra cushion I [need] to afford to pay off my debts.” The program “is going to help me a lot with financial struggles,” she said, and potentially address years of inadequate financial support. Solorio says that her main emotional struggle now is navigating her depression, and the UBI will make it easier for her to manage daily life.
For most, if not all, of the 72 young people enrolled in the program, the UBI isn’t just a guarantee of income, but a pathway to continue school and an opportunity to step back and think more broadly about their lives, rather than just focusing on the day-to-day. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said that county staff will check in with the recipients every three months to offer financial guidance that they may not have received elsewhere.
Chavez explained that the UBI program was born out of a long-held belief that young people in the “custodial care” of the county community should be cared for as if they were her own — or any parent’s in the area. It’s not an unreasonable approach to early adulthood: 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide are supported financially by their parents, which is its own informal basic income program that keeps young adults afloat while they find their footing.
“Foster children don’t have networks and support systems that can help them launch,” Chavez said, noting that she has long been invested in the wellbeing of her constituents from a “justice” perspective. “When you’re making investments in justice, you’re launching human beings to reach their highest capacity,” she says. As she sees it, providing a UBI isn’t about charity.
This “justice” framework addresses more than the need for financial support: It speaks to the multi-layered challenges that await foster youth in transition when they age out of the state-run system. States largely get to shape policy including when young people “age out” and what financial and social services are made available to them. For instance, in California, some former foster youth are eligible for educational assistance. Most of these funds have an age limit and aren’t necessarily calibrated with the rising cost of living. What’s universal, however, is the way that the foster youth system disconnects young people from their home communities, suffers from chronic underfunding, and doesn’t address emotional and mental needs of foster youth prior to the onset of illnesses.
Chavez is aware of the UBI’s shortcomings, mainly that a fixed income for a certain period of time can’t solve all of the problems with the foster care system. Still, it may keep youth in transition financially solvent while they work out for themselves what adult life looks like. “This small amount of money offers a little bit of [protection]” Chavez said, “For our foster programming this is a new area, that our success or failure of the Board [is measured] as guardians of our children.”
In addition to providing financial guidance to the youth, county staff will conduct routine interviews with recipients of the basic income to evaluate its efficacy. Chavez hopes that the program inspires action in other counties around California and potentially in other states.
“Being in the foster care system did one thing and one thing only: It helped me become codependent,” Hart says. But initiatives like this one could actually allow Hart to build economic independence. “With programs like these, I’m able to actually be comfortable somewhere.”