Sep 20, 2016

Investing in youth aging out of foster care

Banksy in Boston. Source: Chris Devers / Flickr

It should be enough to know that it is the right thing to do. We should support foster youth in their transition to adulthood—youth for whom we are collectively responsible—in the same way that families support their own children. But we don’t.

Over 60% of 20-24 year olds in BC live in their family homes, benefitting not only from secure housing, but also financial and emotional support as they further their education, find meaningful work, develop relationships and ready themselves to set out on their own. The circumstances for foster and other youth when they age out of government care at age 19 are starkly different. Their needs are in many ways greater than other youth, but most do not have parental or extended family homes to go to. The vast majority live independently, often in inadequate and transient housing; many end up on the street.

Over 60% of 20-24 year olds in BC live in their family homes; the circumstances for foster youth when they age out of government care at age 19 are starkly different.

In a three-part study that Lynell Anderson, Allison Nelson and I recently completed for the Fostering Change Initiative of the Vancouver Foundation, we looked at the economic case for providing the support foster youth need to successfully transition to adulthood.

First we looked at the current educational attainment, economic, social and wellness outcomes for foster youth who have aged out of care. While some very courageous and determined foster youth do well, the outcomes for many are poor. High school graduation rates are much lower than the general population. Employment rates are low and concentrated in low paying jobs. There is a very high reliance on government assistance and most are living below poverty level incomes. Many youth aging out of foster care have unresolved mental health issues, and tragically, the rate of premature loss of life is unacceptably high – 6.5 times that of other youth the same age.

In the second phase of the study we analyzed the costs of these adverse outcomes. In terms of costs we could estimate in dollar terms, the limited earnings potential due to low educational attainment levels dominated. Statistics Canada data clearly indicate the marked differences in average earnings over one’s entire lifetime by educational attainment level. On the basis of that data, we conservatively estimated the costs of the lower rates of grade 12 completion and post-secondary participation at up to $180 million for the roughly 1,000 foster youth that age out of care each year.

Educational attainment is one key driver of costs. Poverty is another.

Virtually all of the youth who age out of care earn poverty-level incomes, and many (particularly those that do not complete grade 12) remain in poverty over their entire lifetimes. Based on Iglika Ivanova’s work for the CCPA on the cost of poverty in BC—which in turn relied on the pioneering work of Nathan Laurie in Ontario—we estimated the incremental health and criminal justice related costs driven by these poverty levels. We also assigned a value to premature loss of life, based on the government’s guidelines for evaluating proposed regulations or investments, which recommend assigning a $7 million dollar value per life saved or lost. Altogether, the costs we were able to estimate in dollar terms added up to $260 million for every cohort of 1,000 youth that age out each year.

The costs we were able to estimate in dollar terms added up to $260 million for every cohort of youth aging out of care each year.

The dollar estimates are approximate, conservative in many respects, and do not capture all of the many costs that are borne not only by the youth themselves but also by taxpayers and society as a whole. We did not put dollar values on the unique mental and other health care costs these youth face because of their life histories and circumstances. Because we didn’t have sufficient data, we didn’t estimate the costs of homelessness, and homelessness compounded by substance abuse. Nor did we estimate the current and potential intergenerational costs of the high early pregnancy and parenting rates for these youth. Nevertheless, what we did estimate served to provide some perspective to the magnitude of the costs.

In the third and final phase of the study we identified the types of supports these youth need—supports that could improve outcomes and reduce their associated costs—and we estimated the incremental expenditures they would entail for government.  Firstly, youth need secure financial support to cover basic living costs. They also need tuition fee waivers and removal of other financial barriers to furthering their education. And they need the mentoring, life skills development, and social and community connectedness support currently being provided by non-profit service and community organizations that require more resources to serve more youth and extend their reach.

We estimated the incremental expenditures of a basic package of such supports at $57 million for the cohort of youth aging out each year – $57 million that could improve outcomes and thereby reduce some of the $260 million (and more) costs of the current outcomes.

We concluded there is a compelling economic case, not to mention the moral case, for providing more support.

The three reports and consolidated summary document can be found on the Vancouver Foundation’s Fostering Change website.