Pound Foolish and Not Penny Wise

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is counting on foster youth to help solve the state’s financial crisis. By eliminating the three years of transitional care that currently supports foster youth until the age of 21, the state expects to save approximately $5 million annually.

While the state’s child welfare agency is expected to absorb a 12.5 percent reduction, the 2,400 young adults who will now age out of foster care at the age of 18 will lose 100 percent of their support. An immediate savings of a mere $5 million seems negligible, given the state’s estimated $9 billion annual deficit.

By eliminating all of that support, we put these vulnerable young people at incredible risk for a financial gain that will barely be noticeable.

And, chances are good that the loss of services to these youth will actually result in a long-term financial loss for the state. In the short term, without state funding, many of these young adults will become homeless at an estimated cost to the state of approximately $30,000 annually, or about $10,000 more each year than extended foster care.

Over the longer term, youth who leave care at the age of 18 are more likely to suffer from serious and chronic health problems, and because they are also likely to be unemployed and uninsured, the costs of their care will fall to public institutions and tax dollars. Chances are good that young women who leave care at the age of 18 will have one or more children by the age of 21, and because these children enter the foster care system in disproportionally high rates, they will rely on taxpayers’ financial support for at least part of their childhoods.

Forcing youth to leave care at the age of 18 diminishes their chances of attending college by 50 percent, while offering support until the age of 21 doubles their chances of earning a college degree. Over the course of a lifetime, foster youth who complete college will earn nearly $500,000 more than their counterparts with high school diplomas. This amounts to a $2.40 return for every $1.00 invested in extending care to age 21.

Of course, the costs to individuals and the community are not just financial. When we talk about youth “aging out” of foster care at the age of 18, we’re talking about abandoning frightened, ill-prepared young people who are legally adults but chronologically and developmentally still adolescents. Because of the circumstances that brought them into foster care and the time they spent in the system, they typically lack the emotional, social, or cognitive maturity of children raised by their parents. In so many ways, they are still children in need of protection, guidance and love.

Money can’t buy them love, but money spent on just three more years of support will increase their chances of creating the networks of healthy relationships that any child needs in order to lead successful, satisfying lives.

Abandoning foster youth at the age of 18 is not only fiscally unsound it is just plain unfair. Surely the Illinois governor and legislature can find more creative solutions to the budget crisis than expecting those who are among the most vulnerable to bear the greatest burden.

Toni Heineman is the founder and executive director of A Home Within, which matches volunteer therapists with current or former foster youths

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