05/07/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

The High Costs of Aging Out

Too many youth in foster care spend their 21st birthday packing their bags, finding a place to live and figuring out how they are going to pay the rent and put food in the fridge.

Youth who aren't adopted or reunified with their families and therefore "age out" of foster care at 21 are thrust into an adult life that few their age are prepared for -- even those who benefit from stable and safe home environments. Of youth aged 18 to 24, U.S. Census data shows that 59 percent of men and 50 percent of women live securely under their parents' roof. In contrast, in our new report, Foster Care and Disconnected Youth, we found that 31 percent of those who aged out of foster care have spent time homeless or couch-surfing.

The 50-plus percent of young adults still living with their families includes students in college. Clearly, it is easier to focus on academics when you don't have to worry about where you'll live. A look at the numbers shows this is true. By age 26, nearly one-quarter of all adults have earned a four-year college degree. Yet only 2.5 percent of former foster youth reach that accomplishment. In fact, by age 26 one in five foster youth doesn't even have a high school diploma. Nearly half are unemployed and those who do work earn an average of $13,989 -- just above the national poverty line. Perhaps saddest of all, more than half of these youth have spent time in jail.

Without a safety net, these young adults have an exponentially harder time creating a financially solid life for themselves. They're also more likely to get pregnant as teenagers and to rely on public assistance. These disconnected youth -- there are 6.7 million of them nationwide -- cost taxpayers an estimated $93 billion in lost tax revenue and social service spending.

When the government removes a child from his or her home, it takes on a profound responsibility. As the numbers above show, more often than not society is failing in that responsibility. And we all pay the price: in jail beds, social services costs and missed opportunities. So we face a stark choice: We can either invest the resources now to help these youth escape the cycle of poverty, or we can invest even greater resources for the rest of their lives as they remain trapped inside of it. My vote goes to investing in our young people now. I say this because I know it works.

At The Children's Aid Society's Next Generation Center, located in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx, disconnected youth ages 14-24 receive the support and services they need to transition to adulthood. We provide mentoring programs, job readiness training, medical and dental care, educational guidance, housing assistance and help with the basic skills any person needs to learn -- like how to open a bank account or apply for a job.

Dianuris Ortiz is one of the many youth who has proven that these programs work. After her mother died when Dianuris was 13, she spent the remainder of her teenage years shuttling between foster homes and short-lived arrangements with family. During those years, the Next Generation Center was one of the few constants she could rely on. While there, Dianuris received personalized support that helped her stay in school, graduate and enroll in college.

Dianuris is proof positive that history is not destiny. And when she gets that college degree, she'll show that a small investment in a child's future will pay big dividends once she is a self-sufficient, tax-paying member of society.

There are three things we can be doing to provide an easier path for young people such as Dianuris. They are:

  • Give children in foster care the adult guidance that they need to keep out of trouble, do well in school and chart a path from dream to reality. Accomplishing this will require cross-systems collaborations among the child welfare, education, housing and health systems, along with employers. Programs such as the Next Generation Center allow youth to spend their after-school hours pursuing academic success and meeting with mentors who can keep them inspired and moving forward. Public-private partnerships that expose these youth to successful people and stimulating job experiences are a critical part of achieving this goal.
  • Give children in foster care more educational support. Schools need to identify the specific needs of these youth and ensure that they have the extra help they need in the classroom. This includes homework assistance and tutoring to keep them performing at grade level. Every effort should be made to keep foster children in their school of origin and avoid shuttling them around from one school to another as foster home placements change.
  • Make college free for youth in foster care. By providing funds to cover the cost of tuition to New York's public colleges, the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY), we would remove one of the major obstacles that stops disconnected youth from believing college is even an option for them.

Yes, these initiatives will cost money. But are they impossible to implement? No. And do they pay for themselves in the long-run? Absolutely. So let's do what we can to ensure that youth in foster care spend their 21st birthdays celebrating their accomplishments and charting a path to success.

For more on this topic, read "Foster Care and Disconnected Youth: A Way Forward for New York," a report by The Children's Aid Society and Community Service Society.