By Richard L. Jackson

Most people spent the past year at home, working from the couch and doing meetings in pajamas. Kelvin Craig didn’t have a home to go to.

Couch surfing with random friends and begging for odd jobs such as yardwork to make money were the only options for Craig, a former foster child with no family, education, or job to turn to when the pandemic hit.

Craig is not much different than the tens of thousands of young adults who have recently aged out of the foster care system across this country and been forced into homelessness because they do not have relationships with biological parents or other family members. 

The 23-year-old rented a room from a friend in northeastern Georgia last year when COVID-19 broke out. He had to drop out of technical school because he couldn’t afford tuition or to pay student loans. Now he is hoping to get back to technical school in the fall with a little help from a new Georgia program.

For those who fall through the cracks, including unskilled, homeless workers such as Craig, there is little assistance. Craig and many of his friends who recently aged out of their state foster care programs have little financial support — either from family or steady employment.

Young adults like Craig could sorely use funds from the newly adopted American Rescue Plan to help them stay out of poverty when they age out of the foster system in their late teenage years and, in some states, their early 20s. The plan signed last spring gives $219.9 billion to state and local communities for everything from investments in education, public health, transportation, housing, and food to human services.

Many states are now determining where to spend their money. One smart expenditure to end the cycle of poverty and homelessness would be to put some of it into helping children who age out of foster care start productive lives.

Each year, 20,000 young people age out of the foster care system, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and many join the more than 4.2 million youth and young adults experiencing homelessness across the country.

The possible economic impact is a staggering $28 billion annually or $40,000 per homeless youth, federal officials say.

Children who age out of foster care have not been adopted or had loving role models in their life. Their futures are not promising, according to a host of studies. Nearly 60% of young men who age out of foster care or are legally emancipated have been convicted of a crime. Homeless youth are two to three times more likely to become victims of physical and sexual assault or robbery than the general youth population. Forty-eight percent of homeless young adults reported trading sex for food or shelter, and 70% of young women who age out of foster care will become pregnant.

Two states are setting a great example of how to put an end to the poverty among foster care alumni, made worse by the pandemic.

Last month, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation that would provide tuition waivers for foster care youth to attend technical school or college. It would waive all tuition, fees, and dorm costs once federal grants have been exhausted.

In Iowa, officials with the state Department of Human Services are partnering with a local agency to offer one-time $750 payments to foster care youth who age out of the system. Payments are designed to help these young adults find a job or a place to live.

Meanwhile, California lawmakers are considering a plan to give $1,000 monthly stipends to foster care youth as they age out of the state system to keep them out of poverty.

While most attention toward the American Rescue Plan has centered on expenditures for public schools, transportation, vaccine distribution, and even the arts, there is significant funding sent to states for higher education grants and human services, including foster care.

It is better to make short-term investments in foster children, especially those who age out of the system, than see them repeat the cycle of their parents who wind up in prison, homeless, or with alcohol or drug issues and are unable to care for a new generation of children, who wind up in foster care.

The American Rescue Plan is a great name, as it can not only rescue our nation’s health from the ravages of COVID-19, but it may also help many foster children who just need a little help move forward with their lives.

This story was written by Richard L. Jackson. Richard L. Jackson, chairman and CEO of Jackson Healthcare, spent his teenage years in the foster care system in Georgia. He is the founder and chairman of FaithBridge Foster Care and a senior adviser to Connections Homes, which works with youth aging out of foster care.

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