Since the election of Donald Trump, there have been glimpses of the potential fallout for vulnerable children in foster care — those whom the state is responsible for parenting. We are looking at the possibility of disastrous cuts that will adversely affect children and families for generations to come. How did we get here?
Let’s remember what the foster care system is supposed to be: a safety net of last resort to protect children whose families are in crisis. It is meant to be temporary, while the family recovers or until a permanent alternative family home can be found.
Long before a child reaches foster care, there are meant to be other supports and safety nets to catch a family in crisis and help them stabilize. In fact, in order for the foster care system to function as it is intended, there must be other supports to strengthen families in crisis and, hopefully, prevent the need for a child to enter foster care — otherwise, the foster care system will be overwhelmed beyond capacity by being forced to serve as the only option: too little, too late, and at too high a cost to a child, who is likely to be further traumatized simply by entering foster care.
As a country, we once had a more functional web of safety nets made up of a variety of distinct programs to support the full gamut of needs of vulnerable children and families, so that children could be protected from the ravages of poverty and misfortune while remaining with their parents. For example, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) provided monthly financial support for children living in poverty who could safely remain in the home of a parent. In addition, the Social Security Act granted (through a series of amendments) additional social services, like job training, transportation assistance, child care, and rehabilitative services. Medicaid ensured access to healthcare for low income people, including children. For those living with disabilities, we added the Supplemental Security Income program. Food stamps ensured a low income family had nutrition support. Subsidized housing programs help offset the cost of housing.
Title IV-E foster care funding, providing financial support for abused and neglected children that, despite all other efforts, cannot remain safely at home, was one part of this landscape of stabilizing social programs. Foster care funding was not meant to stretch to address all of the other needs, like nutrition, healthcare, and housing that vulnerable people might face. The complete web of social services and supports was part of what we deemed necessary in a humane, functioning democracy, in order to fulfill the rights of each person.
Unfortunately, over the last several decades, the web of safety nets that support vulnerable children and families has been eroded. There is no longer guaranteed financial support or access to other supportive services for children when they can remain in the home of a parent. AFDC was eliminated in 1996 and replaced with a block grant, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The problem with TANF is that states were allowed to utilize the funds for a broad range of purposes, and many chose to cut or eliminate altogether the use of these funds to provide financial support for impoverished families. The result has been a steep decline in the number of families who receive cash aid, despite growing need.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Over the last 20 years, the national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two-thirds — from 4.4 million families in 1996 to 1.6 million families in 2014 — even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened.” Further exacerbating the problem, other funding that provided access to supportive services for needy families was reduced significantly and put into the Social Security Block Grant, allowing states to divert that funding to other purposes.
Until now, political momentum suggested that we had some hope of reviving a more viable web of social safety nets. In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success Act, giving states the option of extending foster care until 21 and providing ongoing support to children who exit foster care to guardianship through the creation of a federal subsidized guardianship program. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) expanded access to health care for low-income individuals and families and included specific supports for children in foster care and those at-risk of a foster care placement. For youth in foster care on their 18th birthdays, the ACA guaranteed access to health care until a youth turned 26 years old without regard to income or resources.
The ACA also expanded access to mental health services, deeming mental health an essential health benefit and requiring parity for Medicaid enrollees. ACA expanded access to substance abuse treatment and allowed states greater opportunities to design systems for supporting enhanced substance abuse treatment programs. In this way, the ACA was supporting children in the home of a parent who needed access to mental health treatment or substance abuse counseling in order to parent effectively and provide for the child, thus, hopefully, preventing an entry into foster care if it could safely be avoided. It also expanded supports to children who do come into foster care by guaranteeing access to health care services well beyond their exit from foster care.
Now, it appears, the pendulum has swung violently to the right, threatening vulnerable children and families like nothing else in recent history. Republican budget proposals over the last several years have not only proposed reducing or block granting some of the remaining entitlements, but eliminating those programs that have already gone the way of the block grant. The Republican playbook to eliminate the safety net is to block grant the programs and then, later, to eliminate the block grants. Republican budget proposals from the last year alone included the following:
- Repealing the ACA, which has provided health insurance to over 16 million individuals who would otherwise not have been able to access coverage;
- Block granting Medicaid, the federal health insurance program that serves low-income children and families, and cutting federal funding for the program by over $900 billion dollars over the next decade, resulting in states having to limit eligibility, cover fewer services and/or lower payments to providers;
- Repealing the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), which provides $1.7 billion in flexible funding to states to use for a variety of social service activities, including child care, substance abuse treatment, child welfare services and special services for individuals with disabilities;
- Cutting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by $125 billion over ten years and converting the program to a block grant;
- Reducing the Pell Grant, which provides direct grants to low-income college students, by $78 billion over 10 years;
- Expiration of improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that would result in $159 billion in lost credits for 26 million working families.
While it is unlikely that all of these proposals will come to pass in the near future, they are all likely to come under discussion with renewed Republican momentum, and the impact of any one of these proposals could be devastating.
There is no way to couch the threat to vulnerable families and children in more comforting terms. The good news is that all signs are that California is fully prepared to mount an aggressive campaign to fight the erosion of essential programs and services for citizens in need. Our state legislature responded to the Trump election within a matter of hours with a clear and unprecedented statement that they would stand united in shoring up protections against incursions coming from the Trump administration. Everyone from the state’s Congressional representatives to our lieutenant governor, mayors around the state and powerful members of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors have vowed to oppose various elements of the Trump agenda and band together to protect Californians. All of them acknowledge that the fight ahead will be difficult and, at times, deeply discouraging. However, it is heartening that so many of our state representatives and elected officials are united in speaking to Washington in one voice; as individuals, we should be prepared to help them in that endeavor with grassroots campaigns.
As we all prepare for the years ahead, it’s important to maintain a clear vision of our goal, which should be to rebuild, strengthen and expand the network of social safety nets. Healthcare, housing, nutrition, access to education and jobs, mental health care and substance abuse treatment: all of it comes together to maintain the most vulnerable among us at standards appropriate to a decent democracy. We can’t allow ourselves to fall into a mindset of fighting for scraps at the federal table and forget to speak clearly on behalf of the need for robust protections against suffering for children and families in need.
Angie Schwartz is policy director for the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children’s Rights.