While April 15th is far from a national holiday, it is an occasion that brings together millions of Americans, often for complaining and commiserating rather than celebrating. Indeed, in 2014 the IRS received 136,887,000 tax returns, some eligible for refunds and others accompanied by a payment to make up a shortfall in money owed.
Some of those tax dollars go toward maintaining the child welfare system and supporting the foster children whose parents are, for myriad reasons, unable to care for them.
Unfortunately for all of us, when these young people leave care at the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state where they live, most will not be joining the ranks of taxpayers. Of the approximately 18,000 young adults who age out foster care each year, fewer than 50 percent will be steadily employed. Many who do find and maintain work will be underemployed.
A multi-state study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that more than 70 percent of former foster youth earned less than $25,000 annually, and many do not have skills that could allow them to work at jobs earning more than minimum wage. With few exceptions, those who are unemployed are not happy about their situation, and struggle to change it.
They engage in exhaustive and exhausting job searches, or take classes to upgrade their skills. Many take part-time or temporary jobs to at least partly fill their days and their wallets while waiting for a more desirable position to become available.
For most Americans, the right to complain about paying taxes is just one piece of the employment package that adults take for granted and, in many spoken and unspoken ways, binds workers together. After all, children start preparing for work even before they enter school. Imaginary play often transports them into the working world of adulthood, for along with pretending to be princesses and superheroes, they experiment with being teachers, firefighters, movie stars, and athletes.
Our failure to prepare foster children for gainful employment and the opportunity to pay their fair share of taxes has consequences that extend beyond depriving them of the chance for financial security. Employment can provide not only earned income, but a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, a chance to connect with co-workers and possibly form friendships that extend beyond the working hours, and, even in the midst of a commuting slog, the feeling of being part of the crowd. One of those who “belongs.”
Because unemployment and underemployment perpetuate former foster children’s sense of not belonging, we also cheat them of the satisfaction that comes from all of the daily, and yearly, pleasures and pains that come with being a contributing member of one’s community. The entire community suffers as well, not only from lost tax dollars, but from the ongoing financial costs of supporting those who are unable to care for themselves, and the societal costs of maintaining significant numbers of disaffected members.
In this context, we have an obligation to our communities as well as to the foster youth in our collective care, to do more to help them join the Taxpayers’ Chorus as it raises a collective voice in the annual April 15th lament.
Toni Heineman is the founder and executive director of A Home Within, which matches volunteer therapists with current or former foster youths.